Charles Onwuakpa writes about Carlo Ancelotti and the approach he is likely to take on at Napoli.
After three intense seasons in the Southern part of Italy, the love story between Maurizio Sarri & Napoli came to an end: despite the fact that they didn’t win any trophies (they eventually lost last season’s Serie A title race to Juventus despite racking up 91 points at the end of the campaign) under his tenure, Sarri built one of Europe’s most exciting teams to watch, using a 4-3-3 formation with a possession-based and attacking style of football.
Despite losing the Tuscany-born coach this summer, the Partenopei found a rather decent substitute in the figure of Carlo Ancelotti.
Who is Carlo Ancelotti?
Ancelotti is a manager who needs no presentations as his past achievements in European football speak for himself.
Born in Reggiolo (Italy) in 1959, Ancelotti is one of only three managers to have won the UEFA Champions League three times (twice with Milan and once with Real Madrid), and one of only two to have managed teams in four finals.
Ancelotti is also one of seven people to have won the European Cup or Champions League as both a player and a manager. He is regarded as one of the best and most successful managers of all time.
Nicknamed Carletto, Ancelotti was a very versatile midfielder who began his career with Parma, helping the club to Serie B promotion in 1979. He moved to Roma the following season, where he won a Serie A title and four Coppa Italia titles, and also played for the late 1980s Milan team, with which he won two league titles and two European Cups, among other titles.
As a manager, he has worked for Reggiana, Parma, Juventus, Milan, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, winning domestic titles in Italy, England, France, and Germany.
Ancelotti’s arrival at Napoli will see a massive tactical transformation from the Azzurri, especially if compared to Sarri’s team: it will still be a possession-based style of football, but with a more flexible team and simplified schemes.
On his appointment, Ancelotti admitted that he intended to recreate the 4-3-2-1 or “Christmas Tree” system used with AC Milan, which allowed the Rossoneri to thrive in Europe between 2003 and 2007.
Sarri’s 4-3-3 strongly relied on passing triangles to retain possession in their attacking phase: by playing short passes in tight spaces, they could easily evade their opponent’s high press & quickly exploit space in the final third with the “third man” run (which was a regular feature in their attacking play for creating goalscoring chances); Ancelotti’s 4-3-2-1 has more variables, mainly in terms of positional attacks & attacking transitions, which means that Napoli are willing to concede possession and operate a pressing game rather than a passing one.
Having sold Jorginho to Chelsea, during preseason Marek Hamšík was deployed as a deep-lying playmaker in front of the defence and is expected to cover that role permanently under Ancelotti.
Napoli’s starting XI will likely be the same of last season, except for the arrivals of Fabián Ruiz and Simone Verdi (with a strong competition between Mertens & Milik upfront).
In recent friendlies, we’ve been able to see a few patterns of attacking play which will be repeated in official games: as said earlier, while Sarri used dynamic passing triangles in buildup, Ancelotti prefers more fixed lateral chains to create overloads in buildup.
In the first phase of attack, the full-backs push up to guarantee width, the shuttlers drop into the half-spaces and the inside forwards operate between the lines.
The 2+3 shape in Napoli’s own half generally gives them numerical superiority to recycle possession patiently and attract pressure from the opponents, before playing quick, vertical ground passes to the attacking players in between the lines: the team’s main objective is to occupy all vertical corridors in the final third.
Both Insigne & Verdi’s off-the-ball movements are key in the second and third phases (that is moving the ball into the final third & creating goalscoring chances): by operating in the channels they are difficult to mark, as if the opponent full-backs tracked them they would leave space in wide areas for Napoli’s full-backs to exploit, while if the centre-backs pushed up they would leave space in behind the defensive line for the striker to run into.
This means they can receive and combine in tight spaces, turn and run at goal or play in a through ball for the striker; alternatively they can move the ball wide and attack the box to get on the end of crosses.
In the defensive phase, Ancelotti has alternatively used an aggressive style of defence (based on high pressing & quick attacking transitions) with a more prudent approach: Napoli defend with a narrow 4-3-2-1 or otherwise retreat into a 4-5-1 shape with a man-orientated zonal marking rather than Sarri’s space-orientated zonal marking; both coaches were obviously influenced by Arrigo Sacchi & this is visible in the way they use the offside trap.
Defensively though Napoli haven’t been perfect so far, in large part due to the lack of match fitness (especially the centre-backs Koulibaly & Albiol) but also due to not well drilled defensive exercises.
Overall it is a big challenge for most players, who will have to step out of their comfort zone under Sarri (José Maria Callejón perhaps is one who won’t totally benefit from the new system) and for Ancelotti, who has been surrounded by recent scepticism & must prove that Napoli can be a truly competitive side that is good enough to start winning trophies.
Fabián Ruiz: having thrived under Quique Setién for Real Betis, the young Spanish midfielder is expected to light up Serie A this season.
A technically gifted & versatile player, Ruiz will most likely play as a No.8 and should be a key player in buildup and linking the midfield with the attack.
Simone Verdi: ambidextrous and a serious threat from set-pieces, the Italian winger was pivotal for Bologna last season, where he reached double figures in terms of goals and assists.
Playing in a more talented side like Napoli, one can expect his tally to certainly increase.
Arkadiusz Milik: in his third season at the club after two serious injuries, the Polish strker has been their star performer during preseason and seems ready to compete with Dries Mertens for a starting place; if fit he could surely reach 20+ league goals.