Saturday October 17 2015
Building Napoli's wall

Hard work and defensive good practice are as much to do with Napoli’s success as their attacking prowess, argues Richard Hall.

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.

Have your say...
Benitez wanted to keep Reina. Napoli with Reina last season would have qualified for the Champions League.

Allan has been a great signing but full credit to the progress made by Koulibaly from last season.
on the 20th October, 2015 at 1:02am
Sarri over Benitez is the difference this team needed. We should rejoice in his leadership because this team has responded to him, the city has responded to the team, and the love of all things Napoli is fantastic. The stadium was rocking before, during, and after, and it was great to see the people so happy. With roots from Campagna, I couldn't be prouder. Forza Napoli!!!
on the 19th October, 2015 at 3:26pm
Benitez was a disaster. He took a team that had finished 2nd and were in CL and dismantled it asap. He never changed his style and the players hated him. Yes he won the supercup (1 game) and the coppa Italia (4 games) Very poor defence with just 2 in midfield and a poor gk. Look at what Sarri has done. The difference is evident - Insigne is not a winger and playing where he should be. Hamsik back to his best too. It looks like a team now and not individuals on a pitch!
on the 19th October, 2015 at 12:43pm
What can I say! Well I don't wish to speak too soon, but things are looking really good! Bring on Inter!!
Forza Napoli......Simm' e cchiu fort'!
on the 19th October, 2015 at 12:21pm
Another thing - it's good Sarri is willing to change systems, but the 4-3-1-2 was improving for Napoli game by game even before the switch, it's just that the win over a weak Club Brugge side demanded he try it again and doesn't yet make sense to go back. But 4-3-1-2 was hardly some kind of disaster. I hope Sarri keeps it as another option and I think he will.
on the 18th October, 2015 at 6:27pm
Fred Oldfield -- nobody will win the Serie A conceding 54 goals. Benitez had them attacking brilliantly but always at the expense of defence. He was also completely stubborn about the system, especially when it meant playing Hamsik where he didn't want to be. Sarri has done more than just tweak.

Benitez was great at Liverpool, always did the best he could with what he had. My feeling is he only saw Napoli as a way station to somewhere else and no longer tried to create a coherent team.
on the 18th October, 2015 at 6:23pm
@Fred Oldfield (contd) - Agreed Sarri inherited a very good squad but how many times do you see EPL managers coming into clubs with already good squads and yet choose to make wholesale changes to fit their style? Even Benitez did the same when he arrived to a Napoli team that finished 2nd the previous season. Sarri outright said he doesn't need major changes and would improve the defence that were so porous under Benitez. He deserves full credit for the team's performances, especially Insigne's.
on the 18th October, 2015 at 5:54pm
@Fred Oldfield - Don't agree entirely with you. Yes Benitez did a great job in his 1st season and was key to bringing Higuain, Callejon and Reina to the club. However, I'm not sure about forging a European identity when he fails to get past the CL group stages in his 1st season and then doesn't get the club past the CL qualifiers in his 2nd. I think he was frustrated at the lack of investment into the team and he let it affect their performances. To finish 5th with the squad he had was terrible.
on the 18th October, 2015 at 5:33pm
Usual baloney about Benitez. He did perfectly well at Napoli, forged a European identity for the club and he assembled and then left Sarri a very good squad indeed, so that it has simply needed tweaking. The last 2 seasons they were not mature enough to challenge for the title; apart from anything else Juventus were totally dominant. This is not the case now, so Napoli should be genuine title contenders this time, no?
on the 18th October, 2015 at 12:51pm
Sarri is a genius! What he has done with Higuain is remarkable. He is looking like a new man and has never been such a threat. Who knew he could beat a defender with pace!

Napoli at Sarri are very well suited. Sarri has no ego, unlike Rafa. But more importantly, he's a Neapolitan. He understands the man on the street, and knows how to give the fans what they want.
on the 18th October, 2015 at 4:09am
Benitez leaving the club was certainly a blessing in disguise. What's important here is unlike Benitez, Sarri was clever enough to change his system once he figured out that the 4-3-1-2 formation was not working. A player that wasn't mentioned in this article that I feel is very much underrated is Jorginho who offers great protection for the defence as well as launching the attack from the back. Certainly one that Conte should keep an eye on.
on the 17th October, 2015 at 2:13pm
Benitez had run his course and things were only getting worse with him there.

Sarri may not be a big name like the Spaniard is, but it seems the players are beginning to warm to him.

The switch to 4-3-3 is something I thought Benitez should have done ages ago, but he was too stuck in his ways and it made them lopsided.

They will need the 5 forwards to stay fit, but if they do, they'll have a chance of a top 3 finish.
on the 17th October, 2015 at 12:04pm

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