At the start of this season, one of several quandaries Carlo Ancelotti faced as new Napoli Coach was how to revive Arkadiusz Milik. The Polish striker had spent a combined nine months over the two previous seasons recovering from anterior cruciate ligament injuries to both knees, managing only 14 goals in all competitions.
Were Milik a relatively cheap experiment for Napoli, Ancelotti could have maybe deferred the question of playing him. But at €35m, he was one of the club’s most expensive transfers of all time, second only to the man he was supposed to replace, Juventus-bound Gonzalo Higuain.
As Milik struggled with injury during the post-Higuain era, Ancelotti’s predecessor Maurizio Sarri relied on output more evenly distributed among key players like Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, who scored an astounding 90 goals in all competitions between them in the last two seasons under his charge.
But beyond the more prosaic consideration of the numbers adding up, Sarri had also refined over time the synchrony with which Napoli played. He had a formula in place that he rarely modified, using virtually the same set of players not only for the attack but more generally as well, something which President Aurelio De Laurentiis often protested against, accusing Sarri of not properly exploiting the potential of the squad.
De Laurentiis and Sarri’s public squabbles on various topics are well documented, so when Ancelotti was hired last summer many believed that the club owner, rid of the Coach he had come to resent, would bring in a big name for the attack. He did not. Simone Verdi and Amin Younes came in to enhance options up front, but PSG’s Edinson Cavani, the quintessential big-name striker mentioned in the media, did not make an always unlikely return to Napoli.
Ancelotti’s task, then, was towering: find a place for a striker with fragile knees in a team that already functions smoothly. Napoli fans had seen in flickers what Milik was capable of, but after witnessing the feats of Cavani and Higuain at the San Paolo over the years, their standards were high. Even if he could remain healthy, would a striker who had made his reputation mainly in the Dutch Eredivise be able to provide goals and spectacle consistently?
Ancelotti must have always believed the answer was yes. Milik started the first game of this season against Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico alongside Insigne and Jose Callejon, scoring the equaliser as Napoli eventually prevailed 2-1. Since then, Ancelotti has used his striker judiciously in the league: Milik has featured in 25 of Napoli’s 28 league games, but in 15 of those he has either started from the bench or been replaced before the final whistle. However, he has managed 15 league goals in that time - making him the most efficient striker in Serie A - even scoring through a couple of brilliant free-kicks.
When a player returns from long-term injury, they have to reacquaint themselves with their anatomy and come to terms with tendencies or points of failure they perhaps thought they never had. Milik’s resurgence is most significantly due to his own commitment, so it is important not to be reductive here and say Ancelotti deserves all the credit.
Nonetheless, Milik is emblematic of the philosophy the Coach has instituted when managing players this season: capitalise on all the raw material available to you. De Laurentiis is certainly happier with Ancelotti’s approach than he was with Sarri’s, emphasizing recently that the new Coach has “experimented with all the potential of the various players at our disposal.”
In Sarri’s defence, he never had uninterrupted opportunities to work with Milik, but he still came tantalisingly close to toppling Juventus last season. Under Ancelotti, Napoli are a massive 15 points adrift in second with only 10 rounds remaining.
Yet, Ancelotti’s most remarkable achievement this season is how he has laid down a strong foundation while negotiating both the peculiarities of coaching the only representative club of a passionate city like Naples, and the expectations of a President not renowned for being a shrinking violet (the Coach’s past experience with Silvio Berlusconi at Milan would have prepared him).
Despite these pressures, he has kept Napoli ticking, inventing and reinventing where possible (consider, for just one telling example, that while Milik’s goal tally soars and Mertens’ dips, the Belgian nonetheless leads the league with assists this season).
At 25, Milik still has a lot to contribute for not only the future, but also more immediately. The Partenopei are going to take on Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the Europa League in April, and it was Milik’s acrobatic away goal against RB Salzburg that ultimately sealed their progress to this stage.
Dethroning Juventus has proven to be chimeric for another domestic season, but Napoli are still vying for a prize in Europe, and Milik will be a key figure for Ancelotti in that quest.