With a strike-force that scored 60 goals in Serie A last season, Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli side are looking to mount a serious title challenge in the upcoming season. Napoli did incredibly well last season to finish 3rd, only five points behind champions Juventus and thereby achieving Champions League qualification. Next season they look to go even further and finally topple The Old Lady, ending an era of uninterrupted Juve dominance since 2011.
The stock of players such as Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne, and Kalidou Koulibaly has inevitably risen due to their performances last season, with Europe’s top clubs understandably interested in them. However, Sarri’s Napoli stars still remain at the club, leaving him with an existing squad that can match Juventus, who are reeling from the loss of world class defenders Dani Alves and Leonardo Bonucci.
The Partenopei Gli Azzurri have not, therefore, sat still in this summer’s transfer window, bringing in three exciting young players for the coming season. Nikola Maksimovic and Marko Rog from Torino and Dinamo Zagreb respectively will add to the solidity of the squad, with the potential to become starters in the future. Adam Ounas also joins from Bordeaux for a value £8.5 million deal. The left-winger boasts rapid speed, with an intricate eye for creating chances, adding to Napoli’s deadly attacking options.
The influence of manager Sarri next season will also be hugely vital despite his belief in sharing responsibilities around his coaching team. The nonchalance of Sarri on the touchline is contrasted with his intensity and obsession with playing style during training, and he has gone on to prove his doubters wrong, most notably Diego Maradona, who was sceptical of his appointment in 2015. Maradona said “Sarri is a good person, but he’s not worthy of Napoli”, stern words from the Napoli legend.
Through his recent exploits, Sarri has made Maradona go back on such criticism. Maradona recently said “he changed and I recognised my mistake… I really like how his Napoli plays”. Sarri has indeed made this Napoli team his own, with an expansive 4-3-3 formation helping ensure that when in possession, the team are incredibly hard to stop creating chances, let alone win the ball back of.
With captain Marek Hamsik playing at the tip of a midfield three alongside Jorginho and Allan, Napoli ensures there is a constant creative supply for Mertens, Insigne, and Jose Callejon to turn into goals. Hamsik himself had a sensational season, bagging 12 goals and creating 10 assists. He was a mainstay in the starting XI, staying injury-free, therefore able to propel Napoli to a top three finish.
Napoli’s playing style benefits from Sarri’s focus on building from the back. He has placed a huge amount of trust in the highly experienced Jose Reina in goal. With Reina’s invaluable European pedigree in the side, Napoli has another great line of defence in the event of their back four being breached. Reina made 37 appearances last season, and he is showing no signs of retiring anytime soon.
In Kalidou Koulibaly, Napoli possesses one of Europe’s best centre-backs, robust and imposing in the air. Koulibaly has been subject to endless speculation around a move to Chelsea. However, it seems that he will stay, and this will be a massive boost for Sarri’s plans next season. He is a cut out for Serie A, and his defensive intelligence is set to improve under Sarri’s guidance.
Vlad Chiriches and Raul Albiol are also solid options at centre-back, with both players having plenty of experience from the Premier League and La Liga respectively. New signing Maksimovic adds to this selection dilemma, but as the cliche goes, it is a nice problem for Sarri to solve before the start of the Serie A season, when Napoli faces Hellas Verona away from home on August 19th.
Elseid Hysaj and Faouzi Ghoulam are full-backs that offer a different dimension when Napoli have the ball, as they are both relatively strong on the ball, and can pick a pass in the final third. Both players possess decent pace, and in Christian Maggio as a backup option, Sarri has a Napoli veteran that reads the Serie A game exceptionally well, due to his nine years of experience at the club.
Regarding Napoli’s attacking options, they are frightening. Mertens, Insigne, and Callejon were involved in 90 league goals combined last season, as well as some impressive performances in the Champions League group stages. With Gonzalo Higuain leaving last summer for Juventus in a €90 million deal, Napoli’s supposedly bright future began to look uncertain. However, they found new saviours up front, and they have banished fears that goals would dry up during life after the Argentine marksman.
Napoli’s new strike force all began their careers as wide men who would be happy to provide for their teammates. However, they have all assumed new roles under Sarri where they have a responsibility to score goals as well as create them, especially because of Arkadiusz Milik’s anterior cruciate ligament tear sustained last October.
The €35 million signing started brilliantly for the club, scoring twice on his debut against AC Milan, yet fortunately, his absence was quickly forgotten as soon as Mertens, in particular, began producing his best ever football soon after. In these three explosive talents, Napoli now possesses arguably Europe’s best trio up top, especially considering Neymar’s €200 million transfer to Paris Saint-Germain on Friday, which broke up the ‘MSN’ triumvirate of Barcelona.
There is also now the realisation around the Napoli camp that they can mount a title challenge next season. Hamsik’s loyalty to the club feeds his desire to win, and there is a sense that with the club retaining their best talent, the future under Sarri looks bright. In an interview with FourFourTwo this month, Hamsik re-affirmed his dedication to the club, announcing “Winning just one Scudetto with Napoli would count for 10 Scudetti with Juventus”. If this sentiment is felt around the squad in general, the sky is the limit.
The atmosphere around Napoli has undoubtedly been enhanced by Hamsik’s role as captain, with his 452 appearances speaking volumes. This being said, Sarri’s unique philosophy and approach to life, in general, is quite refreshing in a football world that is dominated by the mentality of winning at all costs. In an interview with Napoli Football, Sarri stated- “I feel responsible to bring happiness to those who admire and love me” which is an idealistic contrast to his rugged touchline persona and the fierce character of his team from back to front.
Sarri is obsessed with playing style and how his team can be functional but exciting. It is a mix that is hugely difficult to achieve, but this does not stop Sarri trying it, as he has waited for so long to test his mettle in Serie A. The success of Arrigo Sacchi at AC Milan during their era of domestic and European dominance is also a source of inspiration for Sarri. The Napoli manager has created a rigid base from which to build on, with his wide array of talent up front peaking at the perfect time for him to mount a sustainable title challenge against Juventus.
It is clear that Napoli has to be considered as the main threat to Juventus’ Serie A supremacy next season. With a manager that has gone about this summer’s transfer window with ease, setting his team up perfectly for the next season, Napoli fans can be massively optimistic about what the coming season brings. The squad from last year’s brilliant league campaign is unscathed as yet this summer, with rumours surrounding the futures of their key players dying down in recent weeks.
The new signings made by Sarri and his team show that there is a firm contingency plan in place if they were to lose a couple of their stars, with arrivals in defence, midfield, and forward areas. Going into his third season as Napoli boss, Sarri has a squad and tactical system that is looking at its strongest yet, as displayed in last month’s 2-0 victory over FC Bayern, albeit a pre-season tournament at the Allianz Arena.
This being said, Napoli should be quietly confident regarding their prospects for success next season, and it would be a huge mistake to assume Juventus will sweep the board again in Italy and claim yet another Scudetto. The retainment of Koulibaly, Hamsik, and most importantly, Mertens, is a sign of Napoli’s advanced stature in the context of Europe’s elite. Sarri is set on creating a legacy at the club, fuelled by his desire to prove his harshest critics wrong, most notably Diego Maradona, who has his own place in Partenopei Gli Azzurri royalty.