When Rino Gattuso replaced Carlo Ancelotti in December, things looked pretty bleak for Napoli, but he has turned their season around and could win silverware by taking them to their first Coppa Italia Final since 2014. Under Don Carlo, the dressing room was fractured and the players were openly rebelling against the club.
On the pitch, they hadn’t won a game in nine outings and were dropping away from European qualification. The defensive midfield issue was exposing the team’s backline on a weekly basis, as they leaked goals.
On Saturday though, Napoli fans realised that Gattuso has given them something to be proud of. Inspired by David Ospina in a rather ironic manner, the Partenopei held Inter to a 1-1 draw, winning the semi-final 2-1 on aggregate. It wasn’t the most impressive of performances from Gattuso’s men, but that is what they’ve largely been doing since the Italian took charge.
Ospina’s heroics were perhaps a coming together of Gattuso’s firm decision-making in more departments than one. Having sacrificed the promising Alex Meret for the former Arsenal man since he took charge, Rino had left many wondering why he’d switched the hierarchy in goal. The coach said he wanted a goalkeeper who could play out from the back and was good with his feet. Ospina showed exactly what that meant with a precise 60-yard pass to Lorenzo Insigne, setting up the goal that would make Dries Mertens the all-time top Napoli scorer.
Ospina’s ability on the ball was one thing Gattuso really liked, but it was also his shot-stopping that kept Napoli in the game. Considering he conceded directly from the corner flag within three minutes, the former Arsenal man showed great mental strength to react with a series of decisive saves.
What also shines through is the manner in which Rino has made his Partenopei side gutsy and it doesn’t have the soft underbelly that was so evident under Maurizio Sarri and Ancelotti.
The 4-3-3 shape hasn’t just allowed Gattuso another man in midfield compared to Ancelotti’s 4-4-2. He identified the area of concern - defensive midfield - very early on. The club roped in Diego Demme from RB Leipzig and Stanislav Lobotka also came in from Celta Vigo. Demme’s regular presence in front of the back four has given the team immense stability in that role for the first time since Jorginho left for Chelsea.
It has given the team a structure that is similar to Sarri’s Napoli side, but it is vastly different from a stylistic perspective. Last night was a fair reflection of that, as both Kalidou Koulibaly and Nikola Maksimovic dominated Inter. The idea was to catch Inter on the break and take complete advantage of three v two situations with the pace of Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens. There were three or four occasions where a final pass was lacking when Napoli caught the Nerazzurri on the break, but the plan was clear and it was to defend stoutly and take whatever chances came their way.
This has become a bit of a hallmark of the Azzurri under Rino. They don’t fancy too much possession, but they are direct in their approach. The fact that they made it to the Final without Kostas Manolas or Fabian Ruiz starting is worth noting too.
Both of them have been instrumental in 2020 and have been key to Napoli’s mini-revival under Gattuso. Fabian finally has his best position figured out under Rino and there now seems to be zero confusion about whether he should play deeper or perhaps out wide. He is now the most advanced midfielder, with Demme and Piotr Zielinski behind him.
Some results have of course been frustrating against the lesser sides like Lecce, Fiorentina and Parma. But the flipside presents wins over Inter, Juventus and Lazio - the three Scudetto contenders.
There is of course work to be done, but Gattuso has managed to keep the club in the European race. They’re still in the Champions League and have a cup final to look forward to. Few could have expected this to happen and Gattuso deserves much of the credit.