The trend we are seeing among managers nowadays is young age. Guardiola, Pochettino, Mourinho, Klopp, Nagelsmann are examples of managers who had risen into prominence being young. However, for each rule there’s an exception; and the exception is none other than Maurizio Sarri, Napoli’s head coach who spun the heads of the Italians. Starting as a banker and traveling between Italy, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and England; Sarri started cementing his steps as a potentially brilliant banker, yet his heart was driving him in the opposite direction.
Football always appealed to “Mr. 33”, nicknamed after his meticulous approach in preparing set pieces to which the team he coaches can apply 33 different set piece scenario, and ever since he started coaching after his bank duty finishes, he started getting closer to his passion that was overshadowed by the Finance world.
Sarri started earning coaching certificates which lead him to start a career in Serie D, to which he quit his banking job and dedicated his time fully to the coaching realm. Sarri made a name for himself after guiding Empoli to the Serie A in the 2013-2014 season, this landed him a contract with Napoli, the club whose fans can make or break any individual no matter who he is, unless he’s Maradona, ofcourse.
Napoli became known for its attractive passing style and high pressing schemes for which viewers started appealing to and wondering how can a team like Napoli manage to play in such mentality game in game out. To know more, below is a list of points that describe the main principles Sarri looks for when it comes to his team style:
Narrow spacing among players:
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As shown in the figure above, we notice the proximity of Napoli’s players to each other. The reason for that is to provide passing lanes and access to most of the team’s players, hence inviting the opposition’s press and beating them with quick one touch passes. Pressing traps are one of the highlights of the way Napoli play as they play deliberate back passes to draw the opposition to their half. Once the space opens up in between the lines, Napoli make use of this close positioning of their players and play intricate passes in close spaces. They break free with the use of one touch passes and third man runs, something that Sarri’s players have mastered over time.
Focus on the left flank and underloading the right:
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Hamsik is the creative outlet that gives meaning to Napoli’s rapid-fire passing. Sarri has instilled a brilliant system at Napoli which has been their standard form of attacking; it goes as follows:
Create numerical advantage on one side using Koulibaly-Ghoulam-Jorginho-Hamsik-Insigne-Mertens by passing the ball in between.
If possible look for Insigne running behind opposition’s line in perfect coordination with Mertens’ dropping off. It usually goes like this, Jorginho passes to the space Mertens is dropping to, Mertens lays it off to Hamsik, Hamsik with a one touch chips it to Insigne who is now benefitting from the space left by Mertens.
If the above scenario is not possible, keep recycling possession until Callejon breaks away from his marker and cross the ball towards him.
This is somewhat similar to how teams that advocate Positional Play operate. The ‘overloading-underloading’ is sublime from Napoli as they have the personnel in their squad to switch play effectively and quickly.
Mertens as False Nine:
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After Higuain’s departure and Milik’s season-ending injury, Mertens was next in Sarri’s plans in which he saw in the Belgian a huge potential in linking up play as well as scoring goals using his pace and quality on the ball. In case Napoli faced an opposition with 3 midfield players, Mertens drops off to form a diamond and guarantee his team a 4 vs 3 advantage in the middle.
The reason that Mertens drops deep is not only to create a numerical superiority but also to link play effectively. Mertens is not the stereotypical target man or a ‘classic’ number 9 who waits in the box for the chances to come. He is excellent on the ball and is capable of releasing team mates who run beyond him when he drops deep, while also equally capable of holding the ball down so that he can wait for his teammates to join him in the final third. Despite his small frame, Mertens’ quality on the ball makes him a capable holder of the ball and an effective creator too.
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In the images above, we catch a glimpse of how Napoli fiercely press their opponents to regain the ball back. The common trait featured in both pictures is the use of “cover shadows”. Cover shadows mean pressing one player and covering the second player with your body, in other words closing two options at once.
To know more about shadow cover, have a look at Allan in the picture on the left and Jorginho and Allan in the picture on the right. Both these players ensure that the way they press make sure that they do not leave players in space behind them cannot exploit the space vacated by the pressers.
The first picture is a prime example of how Hamsik is the midfielder who usually presses further up field from the eft half space when Napoli shift to a pseudo 4-4-2 at times with Mertens and Hamsik pressing in the first line. Callejon and Insigne both have important roles in this setup as they need to ensure that the outlets to the wide areas are cut down.
The opposition center backs are bereft of options to pass with the intensity with which the Napoli players press. It has to be said that the physical levels supplemented by the tactical nous of all the Napoli players is astounding as they are one of the best sides on both a tactical and a technical level. Sarri deserves huge credit for this.
Depending on who is near the ball, Insigne and Hamsik take turns in joining Mertens up-front. If Insigne moves to the front line to press, Hamsik immediately fills up for Mertens in the midfield chain and takes up his spot in the left flank. The midfield engine of Allan is vital in this Napoli setup as his box to box action ensures that Napoli have the presence in all phases of play and all parts of the pitch.
Sarri’s Napoli is currently sitting on top of the Serie A with an unbeaten record including impressive victories over Roma and Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico. If Sarri wins the league title, rest assured that his status in Naples will be as equivalent as Maradona’s. “Romantic Football” has gained another seer to look up to as ‘Sarrismo’ has taken over.
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