Napoli have a new manager, and new managers bring change. Different formations, different tactical ideas, different ways of evaluating players. Maurizio Sarri is no exception, and when it comes to the transition Napoli will undergo to go from the way Rafa Benitez did things to Sarri's methodology, it's actually quite a dramatic change.
Gone will be a system that was ostensibly based on width and pace and moving the ball up and around the pitch quickly, but too often got narrow and slow and, thanks to some frustrating personnel choices, out of ideas. The attack-minded 4-2-3-1 employed by Rafa Benitez was once a lethal setup, but with Napoli it was too predictable, too easy to stretch out, and too often exploited by managers who have seen tactics like it so many times over the past decade.
In its place will be a more conservative system put in to place by Maurizio Sarri. Now, before you start deriding it as not progressive enough, keep in mind that "conservative" in this case doesn't mean a dour, defensive, boring system of football. It's not an all-out attacking side like some want to see, but it's not without merit -- it's a patient, responsible system of football that has plenty of attacking potential, but also sets up the team to let it avoid shooting itself in the foot as much as possible.
So how does it work? What does it mean for Napoli and its players? Let's take a look.
Sarri favors a 4-3-1-2 formation, somewhat similar to the old narrow diamond employed by AC Milan during their heyday in the aughts, but with the deepest midfielder pulled up closer to the middle two. It's slightly unconventional in a world of modern football that relies so heavily on pace and width, but when it's set up right it works, in part because of that unconventional nature.
A closer and more modern comparison in terms of its structure would be the formation used by Max Allegri's Juventus side at times this past season. It's well-balanced, stays structured, and, when the players are comfortable in their roles, lets the players cover for each other easily when one is out of position or makes a mistake.
The focus of Sarri's system, and what makes it work, is in that midfield band of three. Like Allegri's faux-diamond, the deepest midfielder is a deep-lying playmaker -- though Sarri doesn't quite use that player as a regista as Allegri does, but he also didn't have Andrea Pirlo -- with the two mids flanking him roaming box-to-box in something of an aggressive supporting role.
The deep midfielder is the main guy who receives the ball from the defense and looks to move it upfield, either with direct, longer passes to the attack, or to the box-to-box midfielders or fullbacks, depending on the situation and who's available. It's a relatively simple system on paper, but relies on that deep man to be calm and reliable in possession, always available to recycle possession and kick it up to more dangerous areas of the pitch, or at least to someone who can get the ball in to the danger zone.
The deep man also has to be responsible defensively, looking to cut off runs and passing lanes, albeit maybe not quite playing as a traditional defensive midfielder. Mirko Valdifiori played this role well for Sarri at Empoli, very well in point of fact, but Jorginho's skillset is brilliantly well suited for it, if he stays with Napoli and if he can recover his form from when he first joined Napoli. After the end of this past season though, how rough things were for him in his last few matches, neither of those things seem like a guarantee.
The two box-to-box mids have to do a lot of work to help keep things ticking over, keep the formation in shape defensively, and support the attack as strongly as possible. Generally speaking, one plays a little more defensively, and the other takes a slightly more attacking mindset, but both need to be well-versed and capable of playing a role at both ends of the pitch. They both will also tend to kick out a little bit wider in attack to help adjust for the formation's lack of width, but also need to come back inside and get back fast when possession changes, and start reading and reacting to the flow of play in a heartbeat.
Gokhan Inler would have been perfect for this role in his prime, but it doesn't really seem like he's there any more with age taking a toll. Contrary to popular belief among some circles of the fanbase, David Lopez could do quite well as a somewhat more defensive box-to-box mid -- he understands how to use and exploit spaces well, and prevent the exploitation of them too. He's also a better passer than he gets credit for, with his steady and safe ability on the ball holding a lot of value in a system like this, even if he's not playing scintillating through balls.
Lopez isn't perfect for the role, as despite his quality runs he may not be able to hold up to the tireless constant action the role would need, but with some tweaks to the system, that can be worked around. Either way, this position needs to be reinforced in a big way this summer, both to get another starter and help out with depth, because there effectively is none right now at the position.
It's a system that works very, very well when everything is "on" and clicking, with the potential for incredible fluidity through midfield that's hard for an opponent to plan for and react to. If it's not working, though, the midfield can easily get out of sync and leave the defense exposed, or the attack starved of service.
Seeing how the midfield is gelling in pre-season and the first few matches will be vital to see how well the players in that crucial midfield group are adapting to it. This is where Valdifiori's signing becomes such a key -- hey may or may not be relied on as a starter, but no matter what he's going to be able to help his teammates learn and adjust to Sarri's system.
The attack is often supported by the three midfielders, but is focused on the two strikers and the attack-minded midfielder behind them. It stays on the narrow side just because of the structure of the formation, but uses positioning and selective runs to overwhelm portions of the defense.
Of the two strikers, one tends to play more as a traditional center forward, aiming to sit between the two defenders and exploit space, trying to receive the ball in the box and make things happen, either by shooting himself or passing the ball on to a teammate in a more dangerous spot. This guy is basically Gonzalo Higuain at his best.
The second striker sits a hair deeper than the first and tends to drift a little bit more. Sometimes he'll drift wide to create some width and try to pull the defense apart a bit, but generally speaking he'll move around behind or roughly alongside the main striker, looking to use cutting runs to exploit any spaces opened up by his partner. He also has more of a creative role than the main striker, looking to play interchanges with his partner and the rest of the side. Lorenzo Insigne is born to play this role, though Manolo Gabbiadini and -- if he stays and converts back to striker -- Jose Callejon would do well there too, as would Edu Vargas if he stays on now that his loan is expired and he'll be back with the team after the Copa America final.
The role of the attacking midfielder is one that's been up for some debate in the fanbase, and in truth it's a little hard to get a read on how this position will play, because Sarri has varied it based on who's available. Sometimes he uses a traditional number ten type of playmaker, otherwise known as Marek Hamsik. Because of the structure of the side, he lets that playmaker run unchained, moving in to spaces freely and picking passes as he pleases to get the job done. After two seasons of playing with too much restraint, Hamsik would likely be eager to take on the role.
Sometimes, though, Sarri uses more of a ... not quite a trequartista, because that's still more of a direct playmaker. If you're familiar with Football Manager, the "shadow striker" role suits it well: a player who sits in the attacking midfield band and looks to get on the ball and run, playing passes as necessary, but mostly trying to penetrate the defense and wreak havoc. This is the role Riccardo Saponara excelled in with Empoli last year and in the past, and Lorenzo Insigne might do well in as well.
Deciding which version of that position gets used is something of a mystery right now, but it might be answered simply by the other roles and positions on the pitch. As mentioned before, Insigne is a perfect fit for the second striker role Sarri uses, and Hamsik just doesn't really fit well in any of the deeper midfield positions, mostly because he doesn't have the defensive toolset to operate that deep. He defends well from the front, but it just doesn't translate to what's needed as one of the box-to-box or deep-lying midfielders.
While starting Insigne there would allow Gabbiadini to play more often, the balance of the side would be better with Hamsik in the role. Besides, with Europa League, Coppa Italia, and Gabbiadini being versatile enough to handle the main striker's role in a pinch, there'll be plenty of minutes for the Italian to play and thrive in.
Sarri's defense is mostly a bog-standard back four -- the centerbacks doing centerback things, the fullbacks defending out of possession and bombing forward out of it. The fullbacks are rather more important to his system than to most, though, because the narrowness of the midfield and attack means that the fullbacks are pretty much it in terms of wide play.
That means that in attack, they're very involved for shuttling the ball up the pitch and serving it back in to the front three attackers, but the lack of defensive support from friendly wingers in front of them means they tend to not get quite as far up the pitch as most modern fullbacks do, having to be ready to track back in a hurry to keep from getting overwhelmed in defense.
That means your fullbacks have to be quick and energetic, and having a good boot for passing and crossing doesn't hurt either. Depth is good too, because these guys will be burning a lot of energy in every match. If Faouzi Ghoulam stays, he and Ivan Strinic make an effective combination on the left -- but the right side is murkier with the aging and slowing Christian Maggio and the always-injured Camilo Zuniga holding down the fort. If rumors of Napoli's focus on acquiring a right back are true, though, that could look better in a hurry.
It's a complex system that's going to take a lot of getting used to for Napoli's players to succeed with it, but it has significant promise once they reach a sufficient level of comfort and so-called "buy in" with Maurizio Sarri and his methods. Aiming for a conversion to his tactics and way of thinking aren't without risks, but coming off an era with Rafa Benitez when the tactics weren't working and he seemed to have lost the dressing room, well, it's worth trying.