Niko Kovac and Bayern Munich Were Never Meant to Be

Bayern Munich have been one of the dominant sides of the decade; domestically and on the European stage. For the past 10 years, Bayern have attempted to form a style to keep their dominance in Germany for a sustainable period. It can all traced back to the appointment of Louis Van Gaal, a manager known for having a particular way of playing, that demands a lot from his players in terms of shape and offensive positioning. While Van Gaal did fail in entertaining the fans (something that would repeat in England) and bringing trophies in his second season, he nevertheless planted the seeds for what Bayern would become. He taught the likes of Thomas Muller, Bastien Schweinsteiger and Philip Lahm how possession football should be played.

After Van Gaal’s departure and Jupp Heynckes’ treble success, Bayern Munich landed the most desirable manager in the world: Pep Guardiola. The Spanish genius sought out to do precisely what Van Gaal was asked to do; define a possession-based, style of play for the Champions.

Pep’s time at Bayern was easily the most interesting of his career. He attempted to implement the same template he used at Barcelona. Which later, Guardiola quickly realised wasn’t possible, and changes were needed to be made. The Bundesliga is a league full of teams which can counter-attack with great speed and numbers. Pep was already used to teams trying to beat his Barcelona sides through quick counters, but German clubs were much better at doing this, especially during the rise of Geganpressing. Guardiola seemingly became paranoid, desperate to retain domination, while also keeping his Bayern Munich side defensively solid if a counter was to arise. He did this through the full-backs. Pep was lucky to have David Alaba and Philip Lahm as his primary full-back pairing; two players so comfortable on the ball, they could seamlessly play in midfield, a position the pair have played before. With Bayern having two of the most fantastic wingers in the world in Ribery and Robben dominating the flanks, it gave Guardiola the option to play Alaba and Lahm as half-backs. Most of the ball progression didn’t need to go through the midfield anymore. With Robben and Ribery being two of the best dribblers of the decade, it allowed Guardiola to give them more space to dribble, create and score, instead of the inside forwards he was using at Barcelona. Guardiola’s Bayern was more disciplined and structured than ever before. With the Bundesliga’s lack of competition during Guardiola’s three-year stint with the Bavarians, it allowed him to experiment with different formations, with the Spaniard at one point setting up his team in a 2-3-5, a real throwback formation. While this was impressive on paper, Bayern were already doing this in a lot of their games. The full-backs would come inside, the number 10 and one of the central midfielders (usually Kroos) would push forward alongside Mandzukic, and Robben and Ribery were left as the primary outlet on the wings.

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Guardiola did what his former manager could not; define how Bayern Munich should be for the next decade, with a focus on possession play, a high press and a more traditional striker who can link-up with the forwards, first Mandzukic then Lewandowski. I could go into a lot of depth in terms of Pep’s Bayern, but it was more to explain why Bayern fans have become frustrated since the Spaniard’s departure.

Ancelotti was first, and arguably where the problems began. This isn’t to say that he’s a bad coach, but he isn’t Guardiola. Ancelotti is at his best when he’s given a very talented group of players, that just need a push in the right direction. He’ll usually resolve some of the more apparent problems while making the attack function. His success at Real Madrid and Chelsea showed this, where he was given two fantastic groups of players. In Chelsea’s case, they recently missed out on their first European trophy, while letting their league form slip after Jose Mourinho’s departure. He did the same at Real Madrid and actually made them fun to watch after the frustration that was Jose Mourinho’s final season. Bayern weren’t bad under Ancelotti, but it didn’t feel like they weren’t getting better. He did win the Bundesliga as expected. However, a semi-final defeat in the DFB Pokal to Dortmund and a rather unfortunate defeat to Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions League did show a noticeable downgrade. Ancelotti’s short second season in charge saw them lose to Julien Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim and a rather embarrassing 3-0 defeat to PSG, which saw Ancelotti’s naivety exposed. Nagelsmann at only 29 already looked the more tactically astute manager, in a similar mould to Pep and being a Bavarian himself. He was who Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinze Rummenigge wanted more than anyone else.

The other reason for Ancelotti’s dismissal was man-management. As mentioned, Bayern weren’t getting better, and the team lacked the same edge they had under Pep, with more reliance over the talent Bayern have over the rest of the Bundesliga. The players were generally unhappy with how Ancelotti’s training sessions were so much more laid-back than under Guardiola, with Robben, Ribery, Lewandowski, Hummels and Boateng all particularly unhappy. Reports were surfacing that the players were having secret training sessions behind Ancelotti’s back because they felt they weren’t being pushed enough. The influence Pep has had on this team is clear, and a manager with the same tactical nous and flexibility was needed, to keep Bayern playing in the same way as seen during Guardiola’s tenure, to keep the players happy.

So, why Niko Kovac? It’s the question that has perplexed me for nearly a year now, and after looking into it for a while, I finally figured that out. Jupp Heynckes returned to the club once again, and Bayern went back to their best. They were so good that Uli Hoeness desperately tried to convince him to stay on. Heynckes, understandably, said this was going to be the last time he managed a club, leaving Bayern to look at other options, to help continue the foundation that Pep established.

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Julien Nagelsmann was the first name on their list, but Red Bull were a step ahead of them, convincing Nagelsmann to move to Leipzig instead of Munich. Red Bull are ran so well, with some of the best talents in Germany to work with. This must have been a more exciting project for Nagelsmann than managing a rather difficult Bayern team. Thomas Tuchel was next on their list. Like Nagelsmann, Tuchel is a Bavarian and was clearly interested in the job. Yet, Bayern were taking too long in approaching the former Dortmund manager, leaving Paris Saint-Germain with an opening to take Tuchel from right under Bayern’s noses.

Bayern seemingly chose Kovac because that’s all they were left with. His CV wasn’t nearly as impressive as Tuchel or Nagelsmann’s. Kovac did help keep Frankfurt in the Bundesliga in his first season, to then finishing 11th and 8th and taking Frankfurt to two consecutive Pokal finals, winning his second against his future employers. This was an impressive feat, but the big question was could he effectively manage the best team in Germany and a group of players with incredibly high standards. At Frankfurt, Kovac was more focused on how to set his side up defensively and work on off the ball positioning. Kovac would need to change this, since Bayern are the most dominant side in the Bundesliga in terms of possession and shots, off the ball work wasn’t a priority. It’s where Kovac differs from Tuchel and Nagelsmann; two coaches who have shown the ability to build a cohesive and robust attack, with Dortmund and Hoffenheim being two of the best attacking sides during their respective reigns. Convincing the Bayern fans and board members that he was the right fit for Bayern was going to be extremely difficult.

Kovac’s final game in charge, a 5-1 defeat to Frankfurt, wasn’t the first poor performance we saw from his Bayern Munich side. In fact, it was seen from the beginning of his reign. Kovac had a very mixed start to his tenure. They began dropping points, failing to look comfortable in the final third. After winning their first 4 games of the season, they dropped points in 3 consecutive games, and the same problem can be seen in these games: a lack of quality chances. Their 2-0 defeat to Hertha Berlin perfectly showcases Kovac’s most significant issue when it comes to Bayern on the pitch. While Bayern did dominate the game, their shot map was a mess:

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Bayern just seemed to lack an attacking plan under Kovac, relying more on the experience of a title-winning team full of winners than his own ability to coach. This three-game stretch displayed how poor Bayern was at creating high-quality chances compared to the same team under Pep or even Ancelotti’s. His overreliance on Lewandowski was becoming more apparent as the match days were rolling by. The Polish marksman was the main thing keeping Bayern’s attack ticking, with Lewandowski not only winning the golden boot in the Bundesliga with 22 goals but also assisted 7. He created over a chance per 90, and his sheer quality not only kept Bayern as one of the best attacking sides in Germany but got a lot out of other players in the team. I find it highly unlikely that Gnabry would have finished with his impressive goal tally last season, if it wasn’t for Lewandowski dragging defenders with him, and dropping deep to create space.

Der Klassiker was by far lowest point for Kovac in his debut season, for perfectly exhibiting everything wrong with Bayern’s attack. Bayern struggled against their rivals for the first time in years. Dortmund were riding high at this point, looking unstoppable with Sancho, Reus and Alcacer having fantastic starts to the season. But this is a fixture where Bayern have always turned up, with their last defeat coming in 2016, where they were somewhat unlucky to lose. This time was different. Bayern did get an early lead thanks to Lewandowski and went on to have a positive first half, with Burki tested through efforts from Ribery and Gnabry. Bayern were dominant and played some of their best football of the season. But Dortmund’s character and determination showed, with Reus scoring two and Alcacer getting the winner, to put Dortmund in the driving seat for the title.

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Bayern were shambolic in the second half by their standards, only mustering Lewandowski’s goal and a few half chances from Ribery and Muller. Dortmund looked like they wanted it more, creating countless opportunities and could have easily won that game by more. Even after Alcacer’s goal, Bayern still had 18 minutes to get an equaliser, yet had no ideas in achieving that, neither did Kovac. Favre reacted to his team’s lack of goals by introducing Mahmoud Dahoud to add some energy in midfield and Paco Alcacer, one of the best bench options around. Kovac, on the other hand, reacted by bringing on Renato Sanches for Serge Gnabry, one of the only players with pace in the team and Sandro Wagner, a player who doesn’t add anything different to what Lewandowski can do. It was so uninspiring, especially when James Rodriguez was on the bench. It still surprises me that Kovac managed to last longer than that defeat.

However, something changed in Bayern’s form. After that defeat to Dortmund and a subsequent draw to Dusseldorf, The Bavarians suddenly awoke from their 6-month slumber, and turned into the ‘Super Bayern’ we know and, at least, admire. From December 1st to the end of the season, Bayern only dropped 9 points, losing a single game. This run included scoring 5 goals or more against Meinz, Gladbach, Frankfurt, Wolfsburg and Dortmund.

This improved form and title win would make you believe that Kovac had turned it all around, but that still wasn’t the case. Two toothless and rather abject performances in the Champions League against Liverpool showed Bayern at their worst in Europe since their demolition by the hands of Real Madrid in 2014. The Bundesliga Champions failed to register a shot on target during their 0-0 draw at Anfield, placing them in a position where they just needed to win at the Allianz. The problem with treating your away legs as damage control means there is even more pressure on you to win at home than before, and if your opponent does manage to score in your own back yard, it makes that mountain even steeper. Kovac’s approach here screamed naivety. Liverpool is one of the best teams in Europe, and assuming they can’t score at the Allianz is ridiculous. The best teams in European competitions know how to win both home and away. This remarkably unambitious approach has been used and failed by many coaches. Mourinho did it with Manchester United during a round of 16 encounter with Sevilla, where they earned a goalless draw in Seville, only to lose the return leg in one of Mourinho’s worst games as a manager. Valverde did the same against Roma in 2018 and against eventual champions Liverpool last season, hoping a strong home victory would be enough to secure the tie. It’s ignorant and frustrating to see coaches still see the away leg as a game where keeping a clean sheet is all that matters.

Their defeat at the Allianz to Liverpool was the final straw for many Bayern fans, with the most worrying element of the loss being how far behind Bayern looked compared to Klopp’s team. Bayern lacked the same intensity we saw under Pep and were by far the second-best team in both legs. The gap between Jurgen Klopp and Niko Kovac was enormous at this stage. Even with Bayern’s improvement in the league, it was a huge step back in terms of Kovac being the right man for the job.

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Even Bayern’s change of form during the second half of the season did raise some doubts. Did Kovac suddenly get the players on his side with his approach being implemented on the pitch, or did the players suddenly remember they are supposed to be the Champions and need to prove that for their own reputations? The latter seems to be accurate, with reports surfacing that the Bayern players agreed to do everything to ensure they remained the Bundesliga holders.

Kovac’s biggest crime as Bayern coach was easily the collapse in his relationship with Thomas Muller. Personally, I do not like Muller at all. While he is clearly a talented player, he is not at the level to have as much power at Bayern Munich as he does. Muller commands a lot of influence in the dressing room and was one of the leading figures in Ancelotti’s dismissal, not satisfied with his lack of game time. The former Milan coach did actually play Muller a lot during his first season, but Bayern decided to add one of the best number 10’s in the world, with James Rodriguez arriving on loan. It was the first time Muller faced apparent competition in the squad, which he didn’t like. He then does what he usually does, and talks to reporters, which lead to more pressure on Ancelotti. The point is as Bayern coach, you should never leave Muller out of your first-team plans. The World Cup winner has recently been forced out of the national team by Joachim Low, a decision I respect and appreciate.

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So just like Rodriguez’s arrival, Muller was again unhappy to see himself dropped after Philippe Coutinho arrived on loan; an incredibly talented player who was an improvement over the ageing Muller. Kovac even admitted that he wouldn’t field Countinho and Muller together because it would be “too attacking.” It was evident by the start that Coutinho had to the season, that he would be preferred, looking more like the player we all adored watching at Liverpool. Coutinho clearly enjoyed working with Kovac, saying, “He is a top coach and a great guy who likes to work hard.” Coutinho’s presence in the side seemed to be an attempt by Kovac to push his own authority, but he clearly lost. Kovac even referred to Muller as “emergency nail,” showing just how Kovac was ready to change the norm in Munich. Kovac did later backtrack on this comment, which says everything you need to know about Muller’s influence. During Van Gaal tenure as Bayern coach, he famously said “Muller always plays,” a statement that rings forever true as the years go by. Ancelotti was sacked for not playing Muller, and Kovac is another to attempt to cross the German forward, only to lose the battle, and his job.

I can’t really blame Kovac for resigning. Even if he didn’t, there was a high chance he was going to be sacked. A squad relying more on individual quality than a tactical blueprint, taking Bayern Munich from the most dominant team in Germany to one that could be toppled and falling out with key members of the squad. I do genuinely sympathise with the situation Kovac was in, but the Bayern job, like many big club jobs, is different. There are different standards, players have higher demands in terms of what the coach should be doing, and they expect a certain level to be playing at. I still believe Kovac isn’t a bad coach. It’s just his style of coaching isn’t suited for a club of Bayern’s expectations. He arrived as the third choice option. He was always going to struggle to win over the fans, the players and the board. Kovac and Bayern were so different that it’s hard even to think that this was going to work in the long term. This was an appointment that felt wrong from the beginning, and even if I did hope he would find his feet in this massive job, it’s clear that this was never going to work out.

 

The Next Mbappe? UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group E

Red Bull Salzburg 

Let’s start in Austria, where Salzburg are back in the Champions League, after being stuck in the Europa League for the last 5 years. The Bundesliga champions have been one of the most exciting sides during the past decade, with their focus on hiring innovative, young coaches to guide their usual crop of young talent. Adi Hutter, Roger Schmidt and Marco Rose all moved to a bigger league, and it shows just how good of an eye Salzburg have for spotting elite coaches. 

Salzburg’s team under Rose was uniquely entertaining. The German tactician formed a side which was aggressive, forward-thinking and very flexible. Full-backs bombing forward, midfielders overloading the centre, strikers splitting wide, it was a side that was genuinely unpredictable in how they attacked. They reached the semi-finals of the Europa League in 2017/18 and went unbeaten in the group stages in the following season, a group containing RB Leipzig and Celtic. Their quality of manager and talent allowed them to perform far better than expected and helped highlight the young talent playing in some of the weaker leagues across Europe. 

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By far their biggest threat is young superstar forward Erling Haaland. The 19-year-old has recently had the spotlight shining brightly onto him after breaking the record for most goals in a U20 World Cup game, scoring nine against Honduras (yes, nine). In 2018, Dortmund, Juventus and Manchester United were all showing massive interest in the striker, but Haaland chose to join Salzburg, a sensible move if one is searching for guaranteed first-team minutes. He didn’t play much in his first season, with the Austrian club preferring to let him settle first before throwing him into the deep end, but now with Dabbur gone, Haaland looks ready to tear Europe apart. While I haven’t had a chance to watch Haaland, a look at his numbers and goals show a player who could become one of the world’s best. If I had to compare him to any great forward in terms of skillset, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Sebastien Haller is the first to come to mind. As the pair, Haaland is absolutely massive, being 6.2 while having the muscle of someone much older. His size and strength are reasons why he’s been able to start regularly at such a young age, but there is more to him than just physicality. Haaland is a fantastic dribbler, as well as being a very creative forward. For Salzburg this season, the Norwegian has been completing over 2 dribbles per 90, and his xA is currently around 0.30, more than Raheem Sterling and Mohamed Salah. He’s a clinical finisher who could similarly break onto the scene to Mbappe even if he might struggle in this group. Just remember Erling Haaland, because he is a potential superstar.

Do I think Salzburg have a chance to reach the round of 16? Not likely, but they could still cause a few surprises. Napoli look surprisingly vulnerable in Serie A, and Liverpool failed to win an away game in their group last season. While they aren’t one of the favourites to finish in the top two spots, they are likely to return to the Europa League once again. 

KRC Genk 

Genk play in the Champions League for the first time since 2011/12, when Kevin De Bruyne was still playing for the club. The group stages have come at the wrong time for Genk. After winning the league last season, they lost some of their best players. Alejandro Pozuelo left in January to join Toronto for £8 million, while Leandro Toussard departed the club in the summer, joining Brighton for £18 million. The pair were essential members of the team, especially Toussard, who was fantastic for Genk last season. Their departures have coincided with a poor start to the season, with De Smurfen sitting in 9th.

While the losses of two of their most important players were problematic, their replacements haven’t settled as of yet. Theo Bongonda, formerly of Celta Vigo, arrived from Zulte Waregem for £6.30 million. He was pretty bad when the 23-year-old was playing in Spain, only managing 4 goal contributions in his final season. He has since found form but hasn’t made an impression at his new club yet. 

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If Genk want to finish in the top two, they’ll have to hope Samatta can bring his form into Europe’s premium competition. The Tanzanian striker has been a constant goal threat since arriving at his new team, scoring 41 goals in 86 games since signing from TP Mazembe. He’s a classic goal poacher with the added benefit of pace, being able to play on the last man find the right areas in the box. He has so far scored 5 goals this season and is arguably Genk’s best chance of getting any good results in this competition.

Unsurprisingly, Genk are my favourites to finish bottom of the group. Before even looking at their summer business, the other sides in this group were of a higher quality. Not only are they the worst side here, but they’ve started the season poorly, and it’s hard to see Genk standing a chance, based on their competition. 

Liverpool 

Onto the current holders of the competition. Not only are Liverpool the favourites for this year’s Champions League, but they’re most likely going to top this group. However, this isn’t to say there aren’t holes in this squad. Liverpool still has a few key areas that needed addressing, yet didn’t. It could be down to spending so much on players in 2018, with Van Dijk, Fabinho, Keita, Shaqiri and Allison arriving for a lot of money. Klopp was clearly happy with his squad, but I worry if Liverpool does suffer from some severe injuries. Centre-back depth is still a problem, especially if Van Dijk suffers any kind of injury. The Dutchman transformed Liverpool from a fun, attacking side to arguably the second-best team in Europe. If he is out for any period, It will make Liverpool extremely vulnerable, even though Van Dijk isn’t the sole reason why they improved at the back. There still isn’t depth at left-back now with Moreno released, and Origi just isn’t good enough at all to be covering on the left if Mane suffers an injury. Liverpool have a fantastic team, but they were very fortunate in the fact that all of their key players didn’t experience any long term injuries last season. 

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Nevertheless, the Reds still have plenty of threats in attack. Mane, Firmino and Salah always turn up on European nights, with the three forwards scoring a combined 43 goals in the Champions League since 2017. Yet, they are not who I will be highlighting today, instead the full-backs, especially Trent Alexander-Arnold. Beginning with Robertson, who has been one of the best signings in recent memory. The Scottish captain doesn’t possess the same talent as the likes of Marcelo or Alba but just does everything so well in terms of passing, dribbling and defensive actions, that it makes him one of the best in Europe. The difference between him and Trent is that extra bit of quality. Robertson is a terrific passer, but there aren’t many full-backs in Europe that can boast a spectacular passing range similar to the Liverpool right-back. His vision and ability to pick out his teammates from set-piece situations or from open play make him one of Liverpool’s best attacking threats. 

There aren’t many issues regarding Liverpool’s team. They did struggle away in the group stages last season, failing to win any of their away games. However, while Napoli is a challenging game, they shouldn’t have much of an issue with the others. Liverpool are favourites for the top spot, and only fatigue could stop them from reaching the round of 16. 

Napoli

Switching from Sarri to Ancelotti might not seem like a drastic change, but it’s had a clear impact on the team. Partly due to the sale of Jorginho, Napoli switched from a possession-based brand of football to a more quick and direct style, getting the best out of the talent there. Fabian Ruiz had a fantastic debut season, Mertens and Milik were goal machines, and Zielinski was finally given substantial minutes. With Jorginho gone, Napoli didn’t need to build up play as patiently, instead opting for long balls into the channels to quickly transition the ball. Napoli did at times lack inventiveness in the final third without Sarri, but there was still room for this current group of Napoli players to improve. 

Mertens, Insigne and Callejon, while reaching the twilight years of their careers, are still one of the best front three’s in Europe, but one of their new arrivals has to be the player to watch. After leaving Mexico and joining PSV, Hirving Lozano finally earned his move to one of Europe’s elite, moving to Naples for £36 million, a fair price for a player clearly too good for the Dutch top-flight. Lozano is everything you want from a winger. Able to play on both wings, the Mexican international can create, dribble and score plenty of goals. What makes Lozano so unique is just how raw, yet clinical he is. He runs at defenders with drive yet is so composed in possession. If anyone is going to replace the insane output that their front three have been producing, Lozano is the beginning of that move forward.

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While Napoli’s attack remains exciting, their weaknesses in defence have been well-known by this point. The loss of Raul Albiol must have had an effect on the side. The Spaniard remained fantastic even in his early thirties, and replacing him with Manolas was rather strange. The Greek defender isn’t necessarily bad, but his overreliance on pace to recovery from his own mistakes is not good when said player is reaching a point where his pace may start to decline. Spending over £30 million on a 28-year-old defender was insane to me. I’m not also unsure if Di Lorenzo is even good enough for Champions League football, and it’s made Napoli look somewhat vulnerable, and I can see their visit to Anfield being an ugly one. Nevertheless, they should qualify for the round of 16, if Salzburg doesn’t reach the level they could.

Are Napoli Favourites for Serie A?

While Madrid is spending a fortune on talent, the Neymar transfer saga and Bayern Munich looking to future proof their squad, it seems Serie A has been left in the dust. It’s strange considering Italy is by far at its most intriguing since Allegri joined Juventus back in 2014. There has been a lot of managerial turnover in the last couple of months. After having an underappreciated short time at Chelsea, he has arrived in Turin to give Juventus a more attractive style. While I have already spoken about how I think this move doesn’t make much sense, you can at least admire the optimism. Both Milan clubs have also seen changes in managers, with Conte replacing Spaletti after his struggles in taking Inter to that next stage, and Milan bringing in Marco Giampaolo who saw success with Sampdoria through developing their younger talents. Roma are the final top side to see a change in their coach. After Monchi and Di Francesco failed in the capital, former Shakhtar Donetsk manager Paulo Fonseca who has been a top target for many other top clubs for a while. It means many of these clubs are in a state of instability, with their new coaches needing time to adjust with a new group of players and employing their preferred systems. It means only three clubs are not going through a transitional period, being Atalanta, Lazio and Napoli. Gasperini has done miracles in finally getting his side into the top four, securing Champions League football for Atalanta for the first time in their history after coming close on numerous occasions. They could be a threat once again next season but are unlikely to challenge for the title. Initially, it seemed Juventus have chased Lazio for Simone Inzaghi, but they were unwilling to their manager leave for the most hated club in the league. Le Aquile are in a similar position to Gasperini side. They will not be challenging for Serie A but could be a problem for the other top clubs with their attacking approach to games. It leaves Napoli has the most secure side in the league, so let’s look to see if they are capable to finally ending Juventus’s dominance in Italy.

Ancelotti’s appointment last year made a lot of sense. His predecessor built a team playing arguably the best football seen in Italy since, coincidently, Ancelloti’s Milan side full of elite playmakers. This was easily Napoli’s best side for a long time and needed a combination of elite talent and a coach to get that talent performing to its potential. Ancelotti has had a history of getting the best out of teams full of talent with Italian being one of the very few managers who can handle the egos seen in the game today. He built an exciting side through deploying 4 playmakers in the same team with Kaka, Serginho, Rui Costa and Seedorf and finding success. He did similar work at Chelsea, where he brought the best out of Anelka, Malouda, Drogba and Anelka. His has seen success wherever he has gone but has come across issues in some of his most recent jobs, most notably Bayern Munich, which saw club legend Arjen Robben criticising some of Ancelotti’s methods for lacking intensity. It’s understandable why the players were having issues with Ancelotti. Bayern had appointed him right after Pep, arguably one of the most demanding managers in recent history. Ancelotti is excellent at getting the best out of sides packed with talent but might struggle in more demanding leagues. It’s why a return to Serie A for a team who have a core of players ready to start winning. While they were a pressing side, it wasn’t their main approach to games as you’d see at Liverpool or Salzburg, instead focusing on possession. This is a more suitable style for the former Madrid manager, enabling his current group of players to perform at the same level they were under Sarri.

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Ancelotti couldn’t possibly keep Napoli playing the exact same way, so how has he added his stamp on the side? He has substituted the slower build-up play into a more direct style, making transition much more fluid and attempting to make them less predictable. This can be seen by a couple of things, the first being the signings. Dani Ceballos, Fabian Ruiz and Giovani Lo Celso have all been developed into top talents by Real Betis. While Ceballos and Lo Celso have had struggles at bigger clubs, Ruiz has been a success. He was one of Ancelotti’s first signings when he was appointed and was a transformative signing. He perfectly summarises the contrasting styles between Sarri and his successor. Ruiz arrived as Jorginho’s replacement, yet couldn’t be more different. The Spaniard excelled as creative number 8 for Betis, combining fantastic dribbling, creativity and solid defensive work, while Jorginho possessed a tremendous pass, a good reading of the game and retained the ball well. Jorginho was immobile, but it worked thanks to Serie A not being as aggressive as the Premier League and the slower pace of the league has turned Ruiz from a knife into a sword. While he hasn’t started as many games as I would wish, he contributed to 9 goals from 20 starts, an impressive return for his first season with a Champions League-level club. The departure of Hamsik means that there are even more minutes to go around and it wouldn’t surprise me if Ruiz becomes a key player for Napoli next season

Replacing Jorginho with a more direct player was one way of changing how Napoli plays, but the other difference was the flexibility in formation. Ancelotti quickly released he didn’t need to set up his side in 4-3-3 because they didn’t need to build up possession in the same way without their Italian maestro. They quickly changed to a 4-4-2, and it was a genius move from Ancelotti. It was built on an energetic and powerful midfield duo of Ruiz and Allan. Both are great at ball recovery and fantastic in transition, with Allan being an elite dribbler and Ruiz, as previously mentioned, is an excellent creator from deep. It emphasises just how direct Napoli have become under their new manager, taking away the regista and inserting more physically threatening players. The strength in midfield is a benefit due to the change of formation, but the real boost has been in attack. It has (as expected) allowed Ancelotti to field an extra attacker, usually Milik playing alongside Mertens or Insigne. All have been given plenty of opportunities to play, with the three all starting over 20 games in Serie A.

Milik’s transformation to a critical member of the squad has been fantastic to watch. He arrived back in 2016 after the sale of Gonzalo Higuain for nearly £30 million to give that needed firepower. However his first season in Naples was cut short after suffering from a long term injury, which forced Sarri to deploy Dries Mertens as a false nine, which worked so well, in fact when Milik eventually came back, he couldn’t get back into the side. What made things even worse for the Polish international was a second long term injury suffered in his second season, forcing him to miss 29 games. What has been fascinating about him is he hasn’t stopped scoring. He played just under 1000 minutes under Sarri, yet managed 10 goals which is astounding considering he only started 10 games. His shot numbers are high, he is good from set pieces and is pretty creative for a striker. He isn’t a fantastic dribbler or excellent in the air, but Napoli plays to his strengths and has brought the best out of him. Milik has never necessarily struggled for Napoli but has finally finished a season without a serious injury.

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After going through the difference Ancelotti has made, let’s look at how he has done in his first season for Napoli, which is mostly positive. I thought they were again the best side in Serie A. With Juventus having an awful season in terms of entertainment value and quality and the Milan clubs showing their lack of direction on the pitch, it made it very easy for Napoli to stand out. They were one of the most dominant sides in possession, outshot all of their competition, including shots on target. They completed more passes than any other team in Serie A and were creating more chances than any other side. On paper, they were clearly better than their opposition, and expected goals show that, with understat.com showing them to have the highest xPTS in Italy, 2.57 ahead of Atalanta in 2nd. They slightly overperformed by 4 points, but that is nothing compared to the 19 points Juventus overperformed by.

Starting from the defence, they primarily defended through pressing. All of their players have the mobility and can cover large areas of the pitch. It’s why Zielinski and Callejon have mainly been the first choice wingers. They are energic players and are assisted by their teammates in pressing teams in the wide areas. It’s similar to how they were defending under Sarri, but the pressing, in general, has looked more aggressive and is using the fitness and energy of the whole team to their advantage.

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Napoli have stayed very similar in defence, but it’s in attack where it has looked interesting. In build-up play, Sarri’s side usually kept possession through the centre backs, fantastic passers Albiol and Koulibaly, and Jorginho, waiting for space to open up and play through the wide areas, with the other two midfielders pushing forward. Ancelotti has effectively taken the middle man out of that build-up, with the centre backs now quickly hit the ball into the channels for either the fullbacks or wide players to receive. While a small change, it has made Napoli much quicker in the build-up and has effectively adapted to attacking without their key midfielder. This change highlights Ancelotti at his best, being able to get the best out of what he has been given and making an effective attack.

One of Sarri’s most significant faults as a manager is his lack of rotation. It’s down to him preferring a very small group of players he likes, and will only change if faced with injuries or suspensions. This can be seen in his final season for Napoli, where only 13 players started over 10 games. With a team full of talent, it’s an issue Ancelotti has attempted to address. Ancelotti’s debut season saw 17 players play over 10 games, a vast improvement for the players. He turned Zielinski from a squad player into a vital member of the squad, with only Koulibaly playing more minutes than the former Empoli midfielder. He has been used effectively as a wide playmaker, with a substantial defensive contribution and 1.6 key passes per game have shown why he has been heavily favoured by his manager. It’s in the forward area where his squad rotation has been most impressive. As mentioned, Insigne, Mertens and Milik have played a similar amount of games. This was unimaginable at the beginning of the season.

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Insigne has been one of the best wingers in Europe for the past 4 years, and the idea of him taking a lesser role was insane to imagine, but it has worked for all players involved. Milik’s impressive form has made it nearly impossible to drop him, with the striker scoring 17 goals in 27 starts. Ancelotti has seemed to be more careful in how often he has deployed Dries Mertens. The Belgian international became a vital player for Sarri but has seen his game time decrease under his new manager. It’s thanks to Mertens now being 32 and is at an age where Ancelotti doesn’t want to rely on him too heavily. The Italian has also historically preferred to have a more traditional striker has his first choice, with Inzaghi, Benzema, Lewandowski and Drogba performing very well under him in the past. While Mertens did transform himself into a very good poacher, Milik is 7 years his junior and has the same energy and intelligence in the box as his teammate. It seems Ancelotti has attempted to push Mertens away from his importance to the side slowly, and put more emphasis on using Milik.

Before looking at if this side is ready to face Juventus for the title, we have to discuss the potential signing of James Rodriguez. The Colombian is my favourite number 10 in Europe and will go down as one of the underutilised players in the history of the modern game. He’s been fantastic whenever he has played, but managers have preferred other players over him, making it difficult for him to nail down a starting place. After a season that didn’t see enough game time for a player of his talents, there seems to be only one man that can fix that, and that’s Carlos Ancelotti. Rodriguez was fantastic in his debut season under Ancelotti and after his struggles under Zidane, went to join the Italian again at Bayern. He excelled again, with his chance creation being outstanding, even during his last season under Kovac, he was still Bayern’s creator. In only 13 starts in the Bundesliga, The former Monaco midfielder contributed to 10 goals, creating 2.6 chances which were the most for his side. He even showed a solid defensive work rate too, consistently tracking back in more pragmatic Bayern side. Napoli already possess gifted playmakers, but Rodriguez is a next level player and could fit in well in Ancelotti’s system. The Italian has experimented with a 4-2-3-1 before, which is perfect for James. The argument could be made that his arrival could limit Insigne’s game time, which is likely. However, as mentioned previously, Ancelotti has given a healthy amount of minutes to all of his forwards, and all seem pleased with the game time they are getting. James can play out wide as a playmaker if needed and can arguably play in a 4-3-3 as an advanced number 8. He has had a history of playing multiple positions at club level, so finding a place for such a quality player has to be done. He’s insanely gifted as a footballer and has one plenty of trophies, something he could bring to a group of players who have struggled to win in the past to earn the silverware.

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With the possibility of Juventus having a down year, there isn’t a better chance for Napoli to win Serie A. They have had a season to adapt to Ancelotti’s more direct style, they have a right blend of young, prime players and the more experienced and with the possible addition of James Rodriguez. It has given them that star quality that could finally break Juventus’s dominance. Ancelotti is at his best when given players who just need that extra push to succeed, and there isn’t a team that needed it more than Napoli.