The difficult second album. A band or an artist makes their statement, all the things they ever wanted to say, and then they have to follow it up. Where do you go when you’re already at the top? That appears to be the question facing Maurizio Sarri and Napoli this season.
Sarri’s humble beginnings are well-known, the Coach having gone from working in a bank to taking charge of one of Serie A’s biggest teams. Last season felt like a watershed moment for the tactician, where finally he was allowed to put his ideas to the test on the biggest stage of all.
The results were spectacular, with the chain-smoking boss leading a Scudetto challenge which, although ultimately thwarted, offered hope of a bright new dawn for the Partenopei. But everyone knows that the sequel is never quite as good…
If 2015-16 was Maurizio Sarri’s ‘The Stone Roses’, then 2016-17 is increasingly coming to resemble his ‘Second Coming’. Napoli haven’t been bad this season, far from it, but it’s impossible to shake the feeling that there’s some vital piece of chemistry missing. Sure, ‘Ten Storey Love Song’ was good, but it wasn’t ‘I Am The Resurrection’.
It’s not the absence of Gonzalo Higuain - Sarri’s side have scored more than anyone else in Serie A. And it’s not that their remaining stars haven’t turned up - a look at Dries Mertens’ form would tell you that. For whatever reason though, the Partenopei just aren’t the same team this season.
Napoli may have beaten Sampdoria, but even the most dyed-in-the-wool fan couldn’t argue that they were convincing. This is not to indulge Massimo Ferrero’s conspiracy theories; the hosts dominated the match almost from start to finish. But whereas last season one would have backed Napoli to make a comeback after Elseid Hysaj’s unfortunate own-goal, last night’s match could, and probably would, have been different were it not for the bizarre red card given to Matias Silvestre.
Even when the visitors went down to 10 men, the Partenopei struggled. Silvestre’s dismissal came at the right time, just as the Neapolitans were under pressure, and the fans were starting to feel it.
Jorginho, so reliable last season, began to misplace passes. Lorenzo Insigne, former darling of the San Paolo crowd, drew groans instead of cheers. It was indicative of the campaign so far: neither man has had a bad season, but nor have they managed to recapture the form of the last campaign.
It was left to the forgotten man - the Bez of Naples, if you’ll allow the mixing of Madchester metaphors - to rescue the day for Napoli. Manolo Gabbiadini, almost certain to leave this month, was summoned from the bench to inject a spark of invention.
In truth, the forward’s equalising goal was more improvisation than invention, but it gave Napoli the belief they needed to overcome the 10 men. Debutant Lorenzo Tonelli’s late goal was dramatic, but ultimately his side deserved the result.
Despite the victory though, Sarri’s side seem like 11 men playing the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. It’s hard to single out a Napoli player as underperforming, but the cohesion of last year appears to be lacking. Passes were sent to spaces where a teammate was supposed to be, but found only emptiness, while numerous crosses that would’ve been perfect for Arkadiusz Milik soared over the head of Mertens. The moves weren’t bad ideas per se, but everyone seemed to be playing to the beat of their own drum.
In the end, that’s the issue with the Partenopei. On top form Sarri’s men can beat anyone, including Real Madrid in the Champions League. But with 11 men playing their own song, Napoli remain a talented supergroup rather than a real band.