Maurizio Sarri is living the dream. No really, he’s living a dream you’ve probably had.
At the tender age of 40, Sarri gave up his job as a banker and decided to pursue a career in football management. Now 58, the Italian has worked his way up the domestic ladder, and he’s managing Napoli, the team that Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola called “one of the three or four or five best teams” in the world.
Eight games into the season and with City next on the schedule in the Champions League, it’s hard to argue with that. Napoli are the only team in Europe’s top five leagues with a perfect record, scoring 26 goals and conceding just five. Much like Guardiola did with Barcelona—and later with Bayern Munich and now Manchester City—Sarri has created an exhilarating attacking force by identifying a widespread inefficiency in the modern game.
Most top-level teams maintain the practice of two formations: one while out of possession and one while in possession. This allows teams to push numbers forward and then retreat back into a more defensive pose when an opponent has the ball, but the transitional period creates a moment of vulnerability. What Sarri has done at Napoli is to eliminate that transition. By starting off in a 4–3–3 in possession and switching to a compact 4–5–1 with heavy pressing out of possession, Napoli can maintain a relatively constant shape whether or not they have the ball.
The club can’t compete with the riches of the Premier League and the likes of PSG and Real Madrid, and they’ve lost stars like Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani, and Gonzalo Higuaín in recent years, but this season’s Napoli side looks like it’s the best version yet.
Sarri is insistent on his team playing out of the defensive third because of the space it can free up on the opposite end of the field. Watch this clip and imagine the British commentators screaming at the defenders, “JUST BOOT IT OUT, JOHN STONES!”
No matter the pressure or position on the pitch, the Gli Azzurri will try to play out of it.
This insane ability to play passes in such rapid succession comes in handy farther down the pitch, too. While most teams look to impose their attacking tactics once they’ve advanced into the final third, Napoli engage the opposition early on through their signature style of back-and-forth progression. They play vertical passes into traffic, and then, rather than trying to turn, the receiver will drop the ball back to an onrushing attacker. This forces the defense to engage the ball and prevents them from retreating into a shell.
Need a reason to watch Tuesday’s match? Napoli and City have scored 55 goals combined in domestic play so far this season.
Every field player is involved in Napoli’s attack. Normally, this would leave a team vulnerable to a direct counterattack from a turnover, but Sarri’s team plays in a way that the attack benefits the defense.
In order to ping-pong the ball up and down and across the field as they do, the team’s positioning has to remain compact and connected so the player receiving the pass has multiple options. Since all 10 players remain connected, when they turn the ball over, they’re then immediately presenting opponents with a unified front that’s difficult to break down—as opposed to a group of players scrambling from their attacking positions into a defensive structure.
Due to the formation’s natural structure, the equidistant distribution of players across all areas of the pitch allows for groups of players to immediately press the ball. Another press-heavy side, RB Leipzig, utilizes the same concept with their 4-2-2-2. If Napoli don’t put pressure on the ball right away, they run the risk of a direct, long pass putting their backline under sudden pressure. Also known as “doing a Liverpool.”
The defensive mantra Napoli maintain is almost an offensive one. Just look at their starting position against Nice in the Champions League play-in round in August.
They either encourage a long ball to be played right off the kickoff, which allows their athletic defenders and aggressive goalkeeper to close down the ball, or they ask the opposing attack to play through their clustered center. If you want to beat them, you have to produce something special.
Despite all the tactical brilliance of Sarri, it doesn’t work without the players.
Kalidou Koulibaly and Raúl Albiol have created a near-perfect center back combo. What Albiol lacks in pace, Koulibaly makes up for in pure athleticism, and while the Senegal international is no slouch when it comes to passing (he has completed more passes than everyone other than his teammate Faouzi Ghoulam in Serie A this season) the Spaniard tends to direct Napoli out of trouble when enacting their strategy of deep possession.
Farther up the field, Lorenzo Insigne and José Callejón have also found their best form under Sarri. Insigne has always been a free-flowing shooter, so Sarri has encouraged him to shoot even more. After scoring just two goals in the season before Sarri’s arrival, Insigne’s notched 12 and 18 goals over the past two seasons. Meanwhile, Callejón’s pace and guile allowed him to shine in seasons past, but in a system that takes the defenders’ focus off of him, he’s able to score different versions of the same goal again and again. Peel off to the back post, put the ball into the net.
Rinse and repeat.
However, no one on Napoli provides a better example of the transformative power of the right player-manager relationship than Dries Mertens. Once a lesser-known and less-effective member of Belgium’s golden generation, Mertens is now earning comparisons to another Naples legend: Diego Maradona.
Mertens was a winger before he met Sarri, who then turned him into one of the best strikers in the world. Because the defenders are often spread so wide because of Napoli’s aggressive fullbacks and constant ball movement, Mertens often finds himself receiving the ball while isolated on bigger, slower central defenders. With everyone else in light blue making runs in and around him, Mertens is free to score wonder goals or assist a teammate. Last year, he scored 28 goals and assisted on nine; this year, he already has seven goals and two assists.
In order to blur the lines between defense and attack, a team needs two-way midfielders, and Napoli have plenty of those, too. With passing options all around them and defensive support also in full supply, Jorginho and Allan have become incredibly effective midfielders. Jorginho, in particular, puts up gaudy passing numbers on a weekly basis.
Then there’s the star of the midfield show and the club’s longest-tenured player, Marek Hamsik. The 30-year-old Slovakian is at the heart of the move that typically creates that space for Callejón on the back post: the left-sided overload. By linking up with athletic fullback Ghoulam and Insigne, Hamsik forms a trio that combines to overwhelm and outnumber the right side of opposing defenses.
However, despite earning plaudits across the world, Napoli still haven’t won anything under Sarri. Yet, with Juventus in transition after losing the fulcrum of their side in Leonardo Bonucci, and Inter, Roma, and Lazio still behind in squad quality and organization, this could very well be the year for the Neapolitan club.
If Napoli are a testament to what an ideal marriage between philosophy and personnel can produce even without incredible resources, Manchester City, so far this season, have shown us what can happen if you have the right players, the right manager, and all the money in the world.
“I think Man City are by far the strongest team in Europe at the moment,” Sarri said Monday. And then he went on: “I would like to thank Pep Guardiola because he said lots of nice things about us. His compliments are very welcome because at the moment he is the strongest manager in the world.”
He might be right, but Tuesday, Sarri will have a chance to prove himself wrong.