Despite the summer changes, it was the Napoli stalwarts who decided their Champions League match versus Liverpool.Jose Callejon picked up the ball on their right wing in the 89th minute. Dries Mertens played a trade run down the sideline, pulling Liverpool center back Virgil van Dijk out of position and opening up space between he and center back partner Joe Gomez down the middle. Mertens played a give and go back to Callejon, who drove into that space created by Mertens as Fabinho and Andy Robertson failed to react, then played a far post ball to a late running Lorenzo Insigne for the match winner. Even with new manager Carlo Ancelotti introducing a new shape to the side, the foundational trident of Callejon, Mertens and Insigne molded by Maurizio Sarri over the past three seasons still devastates in moments.
Ancelotti preferred to focus on the other end in describing how he managed the minor upset of what was then the most in-form team in Europe. On stopping Liverpool’s own front three, he simply said his side focused on stopping that specific movement of when Firmino drops into space as Sadio Mane and Mo Salah get behind the backline. It was the first time Liverpool were outplayed all season, a performance so comprehensive even Jurgen Klopp had to admit that his finely tuned press was a step off (he described Ancelotti as a “smart fox” leading up the match).
Napoli now are top of a difficult group consisting of Liverpool and PSG. That Ancelotti would pull out a European performance is no surprise considering his pedigree in the competition as one of three managers to have won the Champions League three separate times. And that it would be Insigne to deliver the final dagger was equally unsurprising consider the playmaker’s form this season. With six goals in eight matches thus far, he is on pace to shatter his previous career high of 18 goals in 2016.
Insigne is the obvious pick when debating whose benefitted the most from a managerial change. Insigne has been regarded as Italy’s best pure playmaker for a couple years now, but there is a simple explanation for the 27-year-old’s goal scoring form: he is now a striker as opposed to a left winger. Ancelotti has traditionally used some form of three in the midfield and three in attack, but has shifted to a 442 formation with Insigne partnering the more physical Arkadiusz Milik up front and Mertens the odd player out. The move closer to opposition goal has brought out the poacher in Insigne, as his two goals taken right in front of net against Torino can testify. Amidst transfer rumors, club president Aurelio De Laurentiis tagged him with a “symbolic” $232 million fee.
That change in shape was perhaps forced onto Ancelotti with the loss of deep lying playmaker Jorginho, with Marek Hamsik forced into the position. A player who thrives on chaos and instinct, he has been described as a raw, unpolished “footballing hyena.” The 31-year-old captain has been with the club since 2007 and is at the point in his career where his significance and presence at Napoli eclipses his actual production. There were rumors of a move to China in the offseason, though that was before the change in position. Whether Hamsik adapts to the regista role is the biggest determinant of Ancelotti and Napoli’s success this season.
Outside of Jorginho, the other characters remain. Hamsik is partnered by the engine and skill of Allan. Kalidou Koulibaly and Raul Albiol makeup the reliable center back partnership, with Mario Rui and Elseid Hysaj providing their energy and width at fullback. In addition to their depth at midfield with Piotr Zielinski and Amadou Diawara, they added Fabian Ruiz and Simone Verdi in attack. It is a team with a clear identity and playing style, although given Ancelotti’s last job, that solidity isn’t necessarily a positive.
Napoli are currently in second place in Serie A, but already six points back from an undefeated Juventus side. Last season was defined by the excitement of almost winning the league as Sarri’s methods, Mertens and Hamsik, Jorginho all crescendoed into a once in a decade run built on the right manager with the right players at the right time. There appears to be an acceptance of that title winning moment passing with Juventus reasserting their symbolic dominance by adding Ronaldo. So what is Ancelotti’s purpose?
“I’ve learned a saying in my life,” stated Uli Hoeness, adding that “the enemy in your bed is the most dangerous.”
We may never find out exactly how Hoeness learned that lesson, but he was speaking about the situation in Bayern’s dressing room shortly after firing Ancelotti last September. Ironically, it was the Champions League that did Ancelotti in. He was fired the day after Bayern’s 3-0 loss to PSG despite having won the Bundesliga the season before. In losing Xabi Alonso and Philipp Lahm over summer, it showed how losing veteran voices can undermine even the most successful managers.
The media identified five players - Mats Hummels, Thomas Muller, Franck Ribery, Jerome Boateng and Arjen Robben - who turned against Ancelotti, although there were many more who spoke out after he left. Muller told reporters that he didn’t knowwhat was Ancelotti wanted from him as he struggled to find his usual, free flowing form. After the Italian manager was fired, he said that Bayern would have “good training” again under interim manager Jupp Heynckes. Arjen Robben said that his son’s youth teamreceived better training than the senior side under Ancelotti.Robert Lewandowski blamed his side’s injuries on a lack of intense training. Boateng referred to his one full season with Ancelotti as “the dark days”. Even Heynckes criticized Ancelotti for a lack of striker options. It’s difficult to imagine any manager who’s won as much as Ancelotti receive as much criticism as he did in the fallout at Bayern.
“He’s a man who’s always given us a sense of serenity,” described De Laurentiis after hiring Ancelotti. And in contrast to the singular focus at Bayern, the Napoli president speaks of how he appreciates that he and his manager each have common interests outside the game such as horse racing, and how “life flows calmly” with their new manager. How differently Ancelotti has been perceived by two different sets of players and management highlights the unique culture at each club, and the importance of finding both players and managers who fit those unspoken rules.
The move to Napoli may have been a surprise from Ancelotti’s perspective as he’s always been backed by financial might since 1999, going from Juventus to AC Milan to Chelsea to Real Madrid to PSG to Bayern Munich in the 18 years since. And it is interesting that he would subjugate himself again to coming into a club with an established order, considering Sarri’s singular vision. A lack of squad flexibility could have turned this into part two of his Bayern experience, unable to get the best from a group used to a specific way of playing. But again, we return to the topic of culture. And besides, as with Jose Mourinho’s current situation at Manchester United, Bayern’s struggle this season show that last season’s failure has as much to do with a questionable squad than it does managerial quality.
Ancelotti has only recently struck back at Bayern, mentioning only of a difference in philosophy between the two sides. In regards to taking over from Sarri, he added that he wanted to implement his ideas gradually without “throwing away the good things” of the past. He did add that he wanted Napoli to be more direct this season, which may have ruffled feathers at Bayern but Insigne spoke of becoming Ancelotti’s Napoli after the Liverpool match. This may be the first time since 1999 that Ancelotti doesn’t have the most financial resources in the league, but perhaps this was a deliberate decision to take a step back from the increasingly worldwide stage after the Bayern experience. We speak of the importance of the relationship between players and managers in how that affects their form, but perhaps we can extend that to Ancelotti finding calm both in the Napoli dressing room and boardroom as well.