Even a quick glimpse at Napoli’s fixtures in April and May of last season tells a story. Rafael Benitez’s side were simply not a hard team to break down and the results illuminated this with incredible clarity. The summer brought changes, most notably the arrival of Maurizio Sarri and with this a change in fortune.
Despite not hitting the ground running, the Partenopei are now getting into a canter and their attacking edge is certainly being lauded. Behind all this, the former Empoli Coach has a defence that is well drilled and this has offered the team something they certainly lacked last year.
In April and May last year a 4-2 defeat by Empoli was followed with a 3-0 win against Milan, from here a 2-2 draw with Parma on to a 3-2 win against Cesena. Napoli scored goals but conceded a lot also and the end to the season was incredibly disappointing.
The draw at Parma ended any hope of qualifying for the Champions League, a result that was unforgivable considering the opponents situation at the time. Tipped for the Europa League trophy, they whimpered out against Dnipro and ended the season with a 4-2 hammering at home to Lazio.
Benitez left to go to Real Madrid and this was a blessing for the Neapolitans, who eventually could lift the yoke of the Spaniard’s 4-2-3-1 system. This had been worked out by everybody in the division bar himself and meant that the Partenopei would end the season having conceded 54 goals. To put this in perspective, this was the most conceded out of Italy’s top 10 that year and by some distance. Only crisis ridden Milan in 10th had conceded nearly as many with 50.
Enter stage door right Sarri, a Napoli fan in his first real shot at the big time. He was put on a one-year contract and his team was beaten 2-1 at Sassuolo in the opening round, so one may have been forgiven in thinking that nothing had changed. In the summer however, the new Coach spent wisely and brought in full-back Elseid Hysaj, defender Vlad Chiriches, midfielders Allan and Mirko Valdifiori as well as returning goalkeeper Pepe Reina.
Since the opening day Napoli have won three and drawn three and sit in sixth place only six points off the top with league leaders Fiorentina to play next in a scintillating encounter. Whilst many have marvelled at their 16 goals scored (only bettered by Roma) their seven goals conceded is also something to marvel at. They have the joint fourth best defence in the league and this is a world apart from where they were last year with their cavalier (or gung ho) approach.
Sarri is certainly a man who works on the defence and the more regimented look is no accident. He could perhaps be accused of maintaining an old fashioned back four where the full backs have less to a license to roam and they are made to defend set pieces as a unit.
He is known for repetition on set pieces in training and is a believer that this style of coaching (although perhaps somewhat retro) will bring the desired results. It is no coincidence that with Empoli last term with limited resources in comparison to his current team he managed to concede two fewer goals than the Neapolitans.
The repetition and methodical organisation perhaps has gelled together a defence that on paper underwhelms. Reina’s return in goal has been a huge boost and should not be underestimated, but Hysaj, Raul Albiol, Kalidou Koulibaly and Faouzi Ghoulam wouldn’t normally spread fear into the opposition camp.
It is testament to Sarri and his rigorous methods that Napoli actually seem like a team these days and look like they will only get better. In a world where the standard line seems to be “There are just no good defenders out there” the Napoli Coach offers a different explanation. Perhaps there are not that many world class defenders out there, but you can put together an incredibly good defensive unit by going back to basics and working hard.