After three years at the helm, Maurizio Sarri had moulded Napoli in his image and any replacement was going to find it tough to follow that. Carlo Ancelotti was chosen for his experience, prestige and ability to mutate an existing unit into something new.
The 3-0 defeat to Sampdoria was a disaster, as the Coach was punished for trying to change too much, too quickly. Undeterred, he continued his renovation of the Partenopei by bringing in Nikola Maksimovic and scrapping the 4-3-3 for an unexpected 4-4-2 formation.
Fans and pundits alike had called for Dries Mertens to start and Ancelotti gave them what they wanted – just not the way they expected. The Belgian and Lorenzo Insigne seemed to trade places as the two strikers, moving Jose Callejon to a wider and slightly deeper role.
It seemed to pay off, as Callejon and Insigne looked reminiscent of their Sarri best, with quick, incisive movements and the ability to launch counter-attacks. In the biggest break of all from Sarri, Ancelotti even left Marek Hamsik on for the entire 90 minutes.
Napoli were unrelenting in their attacking efforts, but were a bit too wasteful in the final third, with a less-than-sharp end product and errors that ultimately kept the home side from jumping ahead earlier.
Second-half changes to bring on Arkadiusz Milik and Adam Ounas injected a new look and life that unlocked the game for Napoli. Starting with the Pole, his hold-up play allowed men to come forward, including fellow countryman Piotr Zielinski, who often initiated runs down the left flank and combined with Insigne to wear down Fiorentina’s solid shape. Ounas, another sparingly used attacking asset under Sarri, also demonstrated directness and provided a brief look into what he has to offer off the bench.
Credit must be given to Stefano Pioli’s defensive block, led by young 20-year-old Serbian international Nikola Milenkovic, along with deputising goalkeeper Bartlomiej Dragowski, who was up for the task of filling in for the injured Alban Lafont. The pair stood their ground and did all they could to neutralize Napoli’s constant pressure, but eventually succumbed to a late onslaught of chances.
For Fiorentina, who entered their first true test of the season after scoring seven goals in two wins against Chievo and Udinese, the collective effort was honorable. But it was understood that both Federico Chiesa and Giovanni Simeone were in need of strong shifts if the visitors were to make it three from three to begin the campaign.
The 20-year-old once again sparkled despite not having been able to influence the scoreline directly. With five successful dribbles and tackles, he switched between flanks to expand the playbook and give Napoli’s defence a different look.
Chiesa emerged as Fiore’s primary source for an attacking spark, and though Napoli were at times careless in and out of possession, they cut down on defensive errors to the point where neither the Italian nor Simeone could leave a mark on the bout.
Ancelotti certainly will not be thrilled with the way Napoli conceded too much space in the midfield. While it is early days here in the 2018-19 season for the Scudetto contenders, Ancelotti must be calculated and work quickly to iron out the obvious kinks we see in his group.
As we saw against Milan before they eventually reversed the tie entirely, and in defeat to Sampdoria a few weeks back, tinkering with the components of ‘Sarriball’ in order to effectively play Ancelotti’s way will endure its share of nerve-racking moments.
Until supporters see a string of clean and sharper performances, expect more tightly contested encounters on Napoli’s path.