As the full-time whistle blew on Napoli’s 1-0 win over Udinese on Sunday, their biggest detractors were forced to bite their tongues. It wasn’t pretty but, with Inter breathing down their necks, Lorenzo Insigne and co. ground out a win to remain top of Serie A ahead of Friday’s mouth-watering clash with Juventus.
By their own admission, the leaders were sluggish – in no small part due to their midweek Champions League exertions, and a reluctance on Coach Maurizio Sarri’s part to rotate his squad. The goal itself epitomised the scrappiness of Napoli’s performance, with Jorginho missing the penalty but converting the rebound. Sarri pointed to a change in mentality: “We struggled more in previous years during games like this. We showed less quality than usual, but that was inevitable. Now, Napoli can win ugly.”
That’s what makes the Partenopei such a frightening prospect this season: Sarri has instilled some grit and fire in their bellies. There’s little point in waxing lyrical about how beautifully they can play, but their ability to win games they may otherwise have drawn sees them as favourites for their first Scudetto since 1990. They wouldn’t thank you for saying it, but Napoli have a bit more Juventus in them this season.
What pulls fans in their thousands to the Stadio San Paolo though is their sublime football. Their penchant for penetrative passes and the scintillating speed at which they construct their attacks has made the world outside of Italy sit up and take notice. Despite losing both legs of their Champions League clash with Manchester City, Pep Guardiola’s glowing endorsement of ‘Sarrismo’ was a great source of pride for the Napoli faithful, especially significant as it came from a man who is no stranger to winning trophies with unnervingly accurate passing and perpetual movement.
Football first and foremost is a game designed to entertain. If Napoli were to sacrifice their attacking principles for performances like Sunday’s against Udinese, they may trudge along to their long-awaited Scudetto - but at what cost? Footballing legacies extend further than a few trophies in a trophy cabinet. As Arsenal's Arsène Wenger, another advocate for attacking football, stated: ‘Football is an art, like dancing is an art - but only when it's well done does it become an art’.
Art is subjective though, and stubbornly sticking to a blueprint of attacking football has left Wenger without a Premier League title since 2004. How long can Napoli’s fans be content with a few solitary Coppa Italia trophies?
This season, the Serie A title race is proving to be a particularly interesting one, as despite their contrasting styles, the top two are separated by a mere two points. Although it’s still early days, Luciano Spalletti’s tenure at Inter has drawn comparisons with Jose Mourinho’s for their pragmatic approach. That’s not to say that the football they’ve produced hasn’t been exciting, but Spalletti has fashioned an identity for a club that had been lacking one with the tools that he had at his disposal. He has accepted that Inter are in a transitional year and can’t out-Napoli Napoli. The Nerazzurri have shown themselves to be opportunists, embodied by their captain and talisman, Mauro Icardi’s remarkable 38.5% conversion rate. They’ve scored fewer goals than the likes of Lazio, Juventus and Napoli, but still sit second in the table through their dogged defence and well drilled backline.
There’s a certain beauty in a disciplined tactical display, and at the risk of sounding pretentious, it takes a certain type of fan to appreciate it. The average football-goer wants to be thrilled by a high-scoring game filled with controversy, yet a manager using all of his tactical nous to mastermind a result against a difficult opponent is considered dull. Are Inter fans getting any less enjoyment out of watching their side adopt a pragmatic approach? I’m sure they’re just happy to be sat at the table of the Scudetto chasing teams. In fact, their attendances are higher than any other side’s this season, with another 70,000 expected to be cheering them on this Sunday when they host Chievo.
For the rest of Serie A, the likes of Chievo grind out results and go about their business year in year out with little fanfare, but they do little to inspire, or ignite interest in a league that has long (wrongly) considered to be defensive. In contrast, the likes of Atalanta and Sampdoria’s approach should be what every club outside of the top six should aim for; fielding a team of promising youngsters and looking to entertain. It certainly feels like a case of ‘he who dares, wins’ with the provinciali and the traditional mid-table sides in Serie A.
Do results and beautiful football have to be mutually exclusive? That’s the challenge for the pretenders to Juventus’ throne. Truly great teams are able to balance style and substance consistently, and that’s what has made the Bianconeri the unstoppable force within Serie A for the last six years. The signs are that Napoli and Inter are beginning to turn the tide through two very different approaches.
Serie A’s glorious past captured the imagination of its onlookers through exhilarating football, stubborn Italian defences and a period of European dominance. For it to return to forefront of world football, more teams will need to follow Napoli’s suit by showcasing the best that Italy has to offer. If Napoli can find that balance of style and steely determination, then their trophy cabinet won’t be empty for long.