The 118th edition of Serie A kicks off this week and you won’t believe who the favourites are.
That’s right, Italian football’s supreme force Juventus, who are chasing a ninth championship on the bounce. Naturally such dominance has made way for apathy with neutrals keen to see I Bianconeri knocked off their perch.
Until now few have come anywhere close to solving the Juve equation; of the eight previous runners-up Napoli have finished second on four occasions, including the past two seasons.
However, their gap to Italy’s first among equals was an average 7.5 points, it’s clear Carlo Ancelotti’s men will need to enjoy a near perfect season for the Scudetto to return south after 30 years.
A champion in four different countries, Ancelotti believes he’s got the squad to push Juve all the way and be genuine contenders, but how could they line-up in their quest to reach the promised land?
1. Wing wonders
Since taking over the reigns at Napoli – his ninth coaching gig during an illustrious managerial career – and succeeding Maurizio Sarri, whose job is now to maintain Juve’s supremacy when he was previously the biggest thorn in their side, the Reggiolo-born tactician has been clear when it comes to the shape he wants his side to play.
Across 52 outings to date, he’s fielded a 4-4-2 in no fewer than 42 games, making it firmly his go-to formation and we can assume it will be the system he will be fielding in the Blues’ opening league fixture at Fiorentina which makes sense given it plays to his side’s strength.
Napoli are blessed with electric pace on the flanks and Hirving Lozano’s expected arrival from PSV Eindhoven only enhances that. It could be a while before he’s fully assimilated to life in Serie A, but he needs to look no further than new teammate Dries Mertens, who also joined from the Dutch giants, to know it’s possible.
Both feature here with José Callejón on the opposite wing and Arkadiusz Milik up front. A central midfield of Fabián Ruiz and Piotr Zielinski offers control as well as the necessary bite to ensure balance. No surprise to see the much-wanted Kalidou Koulibaly in the heart of defence alongside big summer recruit Konstantinos Manolas with David Ospina keeping goal.
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2. Nothing false about Dries
One reason why Napoli came to within four points of Juventus in the 2017/18 season was the tactical deployment of Mertens by Sarri, who in the previous campaign stumbled on a new role for him, which the Belgian forward embraced and has not since looked back on. From a tricky winger Mertens evolved into a deep-lying forward or ‘false nine’ to stunning effect.
During that aforementioned year he bagged 18 goals in 38 league matches though Ancelotti has seldom used him to lead the line in a 4-2-3-1 the 32-year-old registered 16 strikes last time out and is expected to be an option. The emergence of promising attacking midfielder Gianluca Gaetano means it’s a stronger possibility than many would imagine.
Utilising a ‘number 10’ and ‘false nine’ tandem offers the Neapolitans a different approach one that could pin their opponents back and not be overly reliant on counter-attacking, which doesn’t have to disappear, Mertens’ intelligence – when to stay in/vacate the area – allows the rotation of positions with his partners in crime Callejón and Lorenzo Insigne.
Going the distance means having a squad filled with strength in depth. A quick glance over and Napoli are stacked in the central areas; here we could hypothetically start Vlad Chiriches and Sebastiano Luperto with the metronomic Allan in front of them, alongside him Eljif Elmas, who joined from Fenerbahçe. His productivity when playing in a deep midfield role is one to keep an eye on.
3. Back to the future
When you utter Ancelotti and formation in the same sentence 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 don’t immediately spring to mind. That honour belongs to the oft-used 4-3-2-1 (a.k.a. the “Christmas Tree”) formation. And the reason being he used it with his famous Milan team of the mid-2000s, which reached three European Cup finals, winning two and losing the other in dramatic fashion.
He’s yet to properly unleash it at Napoli and there’s no time like the present. Although it didn’t bring him incredible league success, given he has one Serie A crown to his name, this may be the x-factor to overhaul Juve. There’s no question Ancelotti has the players to make it work. Sure there’s no Kaka or Clarence Seedorf at his disposal, but in today’s game, the likes of Insigne, Lozano and Milik should be enough.
Allan, the capable deep-lying playmaker, can pull the strings in midfield with Ruiz and Zielinski – covering ground like like nobody’s business – floating around him. Going back to the past in some cases is not a good idea, but this doesn’t feel like a risk, then again are Napoli in a position to be experimenting? The answer is ‘no’ given what’s at stake.
Many observers place them as Juve’s nearest challengers this season. For good reason, although Inter Milan and AS Roma aren’t far behind, the pair have appointed new coaches and have very much new look teams. There’s a degree of stability in Naples and with Sarri also unproven at his new club like Antonio Conte (Inter) and Paulo Fonseca (Roma) this could be the moment a legion of supporters have long-awaited.