Perhaps this is final proof that ‘Sarrismo’ has truly landed. When a tactical approach becomes so instantly recognisable, it is also inevitably predictable and that is where the trouble starts. Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli play in such a precise way that we can all see their goals coming, above all the long passes to the back post for Jose Callejon or Lorenzo Insigne cutting inside to curl towards the far top corner with his right foot. Dries Mertens is more of a wild card, but when Arkadiusz Milik is the centre-forward, they become too static. Add in a sluggish attitude that sees the Partenopei pass the ball around too slowly, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Shakhtar Donetsk Coach Paulo Fonseca deserves credit for cutting off Napoli’s passing channels, pressing them high and being far more aggressive on the night. He’s clearly not the only one who is figuring out how to throw a spanner in Sarri’s works, because this season alone we’ve already seen Atalanta and even Bologna cause them huge problems. Only once the Azzurri took the lead did they then ride that wave of enthusiasm to victory in Serie A.
I wrote at the weekend that Napoli were finally learning to ‘win ugly’ – but the showing at Shakhtar Donetsk proves they have a very long way to go on that score. This is a side that can fluke it a couple of times, but ultimately their path to results has to be via beautiful football and that doesn’t come easy. Their movements are becoming automatic, but that’s both a good and a bad thing. They pass to the space where they know a teammate will run into. The opposition can at the same time mark the exact same spot, safe in the knowledge the pattern will be followed.
With every tactical innovation, there is a surge of success, followed by the inevitable brick wall when the other Coaches figure out your game plan. Sarri has shown he can light up Serie A and Europe with his style of free-flowing, attacking, passing play, but now he has to make the clockwork movements strong enough to grind through a couple of spanners too.
Speed is of the essence here. If Napoli move the ball quickly enough, they are very difficult to stop, even if their passing channels are predictable. They have a way of swarming forward that tears opposition defences apart, but only if the other side are not given time to scramble back into position. Sarri and his men have got to get used to being treated like a big club both in Italy and on the continent.
As for those criticising Sarri for starting Milik rather than Mertens, they do have a point. If the little Belgian was to be rested, it should’ve been against bottom of the table Benevento rather than in the Champions League. I imagine there was at least an element of superstition in his decision: Milik bagged a brace in Ukraine a year ago to the day, beating Dynamo Kiev 2-1 in Napoli’s Euro opener. At least that is one thing Sarri will never be criticised for in Naples, the world’s most superstitious city.