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.Embed from Getty Images
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.Embed from Getty Images
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.Embed from Getty Images
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.Embed from Getty Images
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.Embed from Getty Images
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.