Carlo Ancelotti said Napoli would be more attack-minded this season, but even he didn’t expect or necessarily want to start with two 4-3 results.
The Azzurri made several strong acquisitions this summer in defensive stalwart Kostas Manolas, Mexican hitman Hirving Lozano, and midfield prospect Eljif Elmas. Add to that the reincarnated club's first significant free agent signing in Fernando Llorente — aka Mr. Clutch Time — while only losing the likes of youngsters Marko Rog, Amadou Diawara, Adam Ounas, plus the underutilized Simone Verdi, and Aurelio De Laurentiis's summer business looks not just sensible, but strong.
Napoli have got off to one of the best starts in years, and the Serie A odds being quoted online are among the shortest in memory. However, a strong start and some star individuals is well and good. Is it enough for a sustained campaign and presenting a real challenge to Inter and Juventus?
What is unclear now is whether these signings have strengthened the right areas and if Ancelotti can corral this squad into a cohesive unit.
Napoli's most convincing display last season was the 4-1 rout of Inter. Ancelotti declared that he wanted to see Napoli emulate the attacking performance that night in the following season.
But unlike other so-called ‘modern’ and ‘attacking’ managers like Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp, Ancelotti's Napoli does not use a high press and does not try to win back possession in the final third or even really the opponent's half. Instead, he reverts to what could best be described as a mid-block: press opponents once they reach the halfway line.
Instead, Carletto's ‘attacking’ bona fides come from the fact he drafts two strikers in a kind of pseudo 4-4-2, preferring the second striker to the 4-3-3's holding midfielder. And yet he hasn't abandoned the 4-3-3 entirely, as Napoli turned the second half around against Juventus once midfielder Piotr Zielinski moved into the unorthodox left wing role he played against Inter last year, which saw him wreak havoc on Juve's ever-retreating low block.
But Ancelotti's tweaks have created new problems for himself. Both Fabian Ruiz and Allan want to play on the right side of central midfield, creating a kind of Gerrard-Lampard problem for the ex-Chelsea boss. Even when he accommodates Allan at Fabian's expense, it leaves no room for Zielinski, unless he shifts him out wide into captain Lorenzo Insigne's preferred position. And it's hard to justify displacing the local lad on €4.5m a year to the out-of-position Pole earning €1.1m. In short, it's not clear that Ancelotti knows his best starting XI — and that's before we've even discussed the striker conundrum.
The Coach might argue that Napoli can shift players around as certain match-ups require. But the fact remains that Ancelotti got the first halves against both Fiorentina and Juventus dreadfully wrong. In both cases, Fabian Ruiz looked isolated and unsure of himself in the Number 10 role, but was able to control the match once Allan was removed (against Fiorentina) or Insigne limped off and Mertens moved into a deeper role with Lozano leading the line (against Juventus).
The club lacks a natural second striker. Dries Mertens can aptly play the role, but with Arek Milik often injured, Mertens is forced to play as the out and out striker. Llorente can of course be the target man, but he doesn't really have more than 30 minutes in him. Insigne can play second striker, but prefers to be on the left wing. And there's no way to put Zielinski, Fabian, and Allan all on the pitch unless Zielinski takes Insigne's spot out wide.
Of course, one way to field three exceptional midfielders would be to play a 4-3-3. And yet Ancelotti's failed transformation of Marek Hamsik into a regista and refusal to play Amadou Diawara in his natural position led the tactician to reject that formation in favour of the same tactics that saw him infamously reject signing Roberto Baggio when at the reins of Parma.
Meanwhile, pairing Manolas with Koulibaly was a coup for the defence. But should either be injured, their only back-ups are the middling Nikola Maksimovic or the inexperienced Sebastiano Luperto. Elmas may be a great prospect, but with Napoli already struggling to fit all its talented midfielders onto the pitch, it's arguably the position that needed the least reinforcement.
Napoli tifosi may have cheered when Raul Albiol left, but they overlooked how vital his experience and guile had been to securing the back line. Without real back-up for Manolas or Milik, or protection from the midfield press, Napoli could struggle in the long haul should they once again be stricken with the kind of season-ending injuries that plagued Milik and Faouzi Ghoulam.