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Looking back it is hard to recall a Scudetto race being so wide open. Juventus, the steamroller of previous seasons, are lumbering in mid-table and no team, as of yet, have taken full control at the summit of Serie A. However, one side that has dazzled in the opening stages is Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli and this year may be Partenopei’s best opportunity in recent times to capture the Scudetto that has long eluded them, says Alex Blinston.
‘Sarri is a good person, but he’s not worthy of Napoli. For him to be on the bench is a great gift. They needed a coach who understands the size and prestige of the club.’ These were the words of Diego Maradona on the back of Napoli’s 2-2 draw with Sarri’s former side Empoli in September. While Naples’ cult hero is fully entitled to his opinion on matters at the Stadio San Paolo– his no.10 shirt is still retired at Napoli – Sarri is proving him wrong, and in some style.
The start to the season was far from convincing from Napoli, failing to win any of their opening three Serie A games, but with the stuttering start seemingly behind him, Partenopei are flying. In the last seven games (five in Serie A and two in the Europa League) Napoli have scored 20 times and conceded just twice.
In terms of contrasting figures, there are few better examples than Rafa Benitez and Maurizio Sarri. The latter braces the touchline in his tracksuit, with a cigarette in one hand, freeing the other to marshal his troops. If Sarri wasn’t on the touchline you could envisage him being at the San Paolo cheering on the club he has supported all his life; after all he has said that it is the ‘only job he would have taken for free.’
In his time at Empoli, Sarri’s 4-3-1-2 system yielded fantastic results, and naturally he tried to implement the same formation with Napoli. However, Partenopei only averaged a Whoscored rating of 6.60 in the opening three games and it was evident that the narrow 4-3-1-2 wasn’t making the best use of his new troops.
Instead Sarri quickly flipped his system to a more free-flowing 4-3-3 with a single midfield pivot, and what a decision it has proved to be. Few, in Italy, even in Europe, possess the plethora of attacking talent Sarri at his disposal, with neither Dries Mertens, nor Manolo Gabbiadini managing to secure a place in the starting XI in the league.
With the way that Sarri’s attacking trio are performing, it is hard to see either finding a place in the side any time soon. The Insigne-Higuain-Callejon front line is playing with pizzazz and vigour that has seen Partenopei score five at home to Lazio, and four at the San Siro in the drubbing of Sinisa Mihajlovic’s AC Milan.
The former of that trio in particular is raising eyebrows, with some even calling for that historic no.10 jersey come out of retirement. Lorenzo Insigne has already accrued five goals and three assists and is leading Napoli in key passes (21) and combined goals and assists (9) in Serie A. From the left flank Insigne is given the freedom to be the creator-in-chief, as well as generating chances for himself – no player has had more shots in Serie A.
Gonzalo Higuain experienced a problematic summer, blasting a penalty into row-Z in the Copa America final against Chile, but it has done little to affect his club form – Higuain already has six league goals to his name. The 27-year-old has reached double figures in goals for his last seven seasons: finding the back of the net has never been the problem. However, the Argentine looks more dynamic and more refined this season, linking up with the wide men and the new look midfield – he has seen increases in his key passes per game, dribbles per game and touches per game from last season.
While it has been the attacking displays that have thrilled, the midfield and back line can’t be overlooked. It hasn’t been a revolution from Sarri, just little tweaks that have had a significant impact. In just a short time, Sarri has created the perfect balance in midfield. Marek Hamsik is thriving in a deep lying playmaker role, alongside the more rigid duo of Allan and Jorginho, with only Fiorentina averaging more short passes per game than the Neapolitans.
Under Sarri there is finally some defensive solidarity in the Napoli side. Frenchman Kalidou Kulibaly is blossoming in to a polished central defender alongside the experienced Raul Albiol and the full-backs of Faouzi Ghoulam and Elseid Hysaj are regimented in their defensive duties, whilst still providing an attacking impetus when the wide men drift inside.
Napoli had already resoundingly dispatched of Lazio and AC Milan – 5-0 and 4-0 respectively – but the arrival of Fiorentina to town was a new test entirely – Viola had won five in a row prior to Sunday. While Fiorentina boss Paolo Sousa was correct in saying that ‘individual errors cost us’, however, it was a tough task that Napoli negotiated well.
With no team establishing themselves as the front runners in Serie A, there is now real hope among Neapolitans of a first Scudetto in 26 years.
All statistics courtesy of whoscored.com
Written by Alex Blinston