The journey of Maurizio Sarri from Italy’s sixth tier to Napoli stardom

The journey of Maurizio Sarri from Italy’s sixth tier to Napoli stardom

WHEN THE UNHERALDED MAURIZIO SARRI was appointed as Napoli coach to replace Rafa Benítez ahead of the 2015/16 season, it was met largely with indifference. “We won’t have a winning Napoli with him,” Diego Maradona said. “I’d have kept Benítez. Sarri is a good person, but he’s not worthy of Napoli.”

The thoughts of the Argentine legend were echoed by many fans of the club. After all, Sarri’s only previous experience of top-flight football had been one season with Empoli, preceding his arrival at Napoli. This was a seemingly uninspired appointment; a coach with limited experience at the top level, a reputation meandering on non-existent, and a CV which to most was not suitably impressive enough to be given the responsibility of managing the Ciucciarelli.

But Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis, a volcanic, demonstrative and clearly observant character, had seen something in Sarri which many had failed to acknowledge. His sole Serie A campaign with Empoli was quietly impressive, leading the small Florence club to 15th place and safety, something that had been considered extremely unlikely prior to the season’s start. The media had almost categorically dismissed the newly-promoted club’s chances of survival, but Sarri had achieved it, most importantly in a style that caught the eye of De Laurentiis. Even AC Milan were interested.

But by August of 2015, only Carpi had sold fewer season tickets than Napoli. Expectations were low, optimism was absent, and doubt was the most prevalent of sentiments felt around the football-obsessed city of Naples. Sarri was effectively considered a nobody, not helped by his inconspicuous, understated manner. Think of an Italian Tony Pulis – no hint of glamour or exuberance, just a tracksuit laden, unconceited coach.

Sarri summed himself up almost perfectly when he joined Napoli: “I am happy to do this for a living,” he said. “If next year I started again from the bottom of Serie A or even Serie B, I’d be just as happy. I hope not to change too much. I will continue to wear my tracksuit on the bench, then if the president asks me to change into a suit for interviews, I can do that. On the bench it’s strictly the tracksuit.”

Strictly the tracksuit, and strictly the principles of a man who is perhaps more so than any coach – certainly in Italy – the perfect example of rising from the bottom to the top. But if he had presented an unspectacular figure to the Napoli supporters on his arrival, his football proved to be the antithesis.

Fluid but organised, breathtaking but disciplined, Sarri has created a team that can often not be described as anything less than spectacular, and he has done it with the assurance of a coach at the very top of his game. So for all his excellence with Napoli over the last season-and-a-half, where did the until recently unheard of coach begin his unique journey?

Sarri was born in Naples but spent his formative years in Tuscany, growing up as the only Napoli supporter in his school. As someone who was not a particularly gifted footballer at a young age, the fact that he would eventually manage his boyhood club would have been incomprehensible. Indeed, Sarri never made it as a professional footballer, further adding to the unconventional manner of his ascent to the top of Italian football. He pursued a career as a banker in Florence, while playing football at an amateur level. The son of a working family, Sarri has shown unerring dedication and patience to make an unlikely progression through the Italian pyramid since beginning his coaching career in 1990 at the age of just 31 with Stia.

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Sarri continued to juggle working in a bank with coaching numerous clubs at the grassroots level of the Italian game until 2002, at which point he decided to focus his efforts wholly on football and quit his financial career. “I finally decided I needed to focus exclusively on coaching if I wanted to achieve results,” he said. “I am determined to make a living from my passion for football.”

Undoubtedly it would have been less lucrative, but Sarri was determined. He had been at AC Sansovino in Serie Eccellenza, the sixth tier, for two seasons, when he made the decision, and it was here that his indefatigable, tireless training groundwork had started to flourish. When he first joined the club based in Monte San Savino, a small town in the province of Arezzo, Tuscany, Sarri claimed he would quit coaching for good if he didn’t win the title. He duly delivered, and it proved to be an important step forward of a coach that was talented but as yet undiscovered.

The lowly level at which he found himself had taken nothing away from Sarri’s methodical and scrupulous approach. He earned the nickname ‘Mister 33’ from his players at Sansovino after supposedly preparing 33 varying set-piece routines for use in attacking situations. “We used four or five of them in the end,” he would later reveal. It was indicative of the depth of detail Sarri was, and still is, willing to go to suitably prepare and educate his teams in order to successfully put across his ideas.

His success with Sansovino brought about a move to third tier side Sangiovannese, with whom he won promotion in his first season. Then came Sarri’s first Serie B job, with Pescara in 2005, in itself a commendable rise, before a move after one season to Arezzo to replace the sacked Antonio Conte.

Arezzo, another Tuscan club, were struggling in the second tier before the departure of Conte, and while there was improvement under Sarri, would eventually suffer relegation. Sarri again stayed for just one season, but it was a memorable one, which offered a brief demonstration to some of Italy’s elite of what he was capable of. He oversaw an improbable and somewhat heroic 2-2 draw away at a Juventus side inclusive of the likes of Gianluigi Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero, and came within one goal of knocking out AC Milan in the Coppa Italia quarter-final, winning 1-0 at home having lost the first leg 2-0 at the San Siro.

Though Sarri had replaced the now-revered Conte at Arezzo, the path of the two aspiring coaches was to be very different in the coming years. Until 2011, Sarri was effectively a journeyman of second and third tier clubs in Italy, away from the view of the masses, although still seemingly content with his modest successes. Looking back now, it appears that he was a coach in need of a break, whose ability had been restricted by the difficulty of advancing to the top level with a lack of reputation.

It was in 2011 that one of the lowest points of his career led to the break that would eventually propel his career into the spotlight, at least in comparison to his previous years. Sarri was sacked by third tier Sorrento in fourth place, the reason for which is not known, although the club were considered to be underachieving at that stage.

The irrepressible coach’s appetite for the game was not satiated, however, even when he celebrated the turn of the year without a job, and seemingly destined to soon reignite his journeyman escapades in the second and third tiers. But then, along came Empoli in 2012 to offer Sarri a new project, one which he would approach with such innovation that it would lead to what can only be described as the dream job.

Sarri joined Empoli, a relatively reputable club by his previous standards, and immediately set about mounting a promotion challenge. At this stage he was 53-years-old, but despite continuously challenging at the top with the majority of the clubs he managed, the top flight remained elusive. Painstakingly, Empoli missed out with a playoff final defeat against Livorno, denying him the long-awaited opportunity of Serie A football. But the following season, inspired by Sarri’s fluid, creative 4-3-1-2 system, the Azzurri finished second and achieved automatic promotion.

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It was long-awaited vindication for Sarri, a coach who has always placed the importance of principled ideology and philosophy over his perceived image as a coach. The art of coaching was what attracted him to the job, and it was what allowed him to reach the level he had, seemingly against all the odds.

With Empoli now in Italy’s top division, Sarri adapted accordingly. In training, he innovated the use of a drone to fly over sessions recording what occurred below for later analysis. It was this kind of initiative that was credited with Empoli’s sturdy defence as they comfortably avoided relegation in their first season – only Chievo conceded less of the bottom half teams.

Empoli’s team had consisted of a number of youngsters, and by no coincidence. “At Empoli youngsters grow as a result of their mistakes,” Sarri said, a man who prides himself on developing players individually, and with care. The likes of Simone Verdi, Daniele Rugani and Riccardo Saponara all grew tremendously under Sarri’s tutorship. It is an area in which he invests a great deal of time.

His first season of Serie A football caught the eye of those knowledgeable enough to see the competent coach behind Empoli’s overachievement. One of those enamoured by the organised and stylish side Sarri had established was none other than legendary Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi.When you see Sarri’s teams play, you know how they train,” Sacchi effused. “He is a genius. When I was technical director with the Italy youth teams, I always went to watch kids in Serie B, and I was already impressed by his Empoli. He looks after the players, they understand him.”

In fact, Sarri is a coach not dissimilar to the great Sacchi. At Empoli, defensive organisation was key to the success Sarri was to gain. He places great importance on the defensive line, insisting that the back four is eternally moving as a cohesive unit depending on the position of the ball, and this is the area of tactical strategy that he most ardently drills into his players. 

Sarri’s analysis of the opposition is taken in copious detail, and the structure of his team’s defensive setup is paramount to the overall game plan. But to say that he is a defensive coach would be wrong. As he has since demonstrated with Napoli, Sarri is a manager who aims to play aesthetically pleasing, exciting football, but always with a structure in place. In essence, it relates to a quote of Sacchi’s: “Defence is about attacking your opponent’s’ attack.”

Sacchi’s legendary Milan team were often thought of as defensive, but in fact it was a team that possessed great attacking quality alongside excellent organisation. Sarri has created something similar with Napoli.

When Sarri was appointed Napoli coach in September of 2015, he was typically understated, simply claiming that he hoped to “change the mentality” and that “Napoli is an opportunity for me”. There was really no chance that he would conform to the usual cliched, press release statements on his arrival, though.

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This was a man who had only recently become accustomed to any level of media attention in his role as a manager, and has always preferred to provide thought-provoking answers to any discussion regarding football. Shortly before he left Empoli, he was asked if he was angry about his position as the lowest paid coach in Serie A. He replied: “Angry? Let’s not joke. They pay me for something I would have done for free after work. I’m lucky.”

From Sarri’s first three league games with Napoli, he acquired just two points. The criticism from Diego Maradona, almost a symbol of glamour and flamboyance in the city, left the chain-smoking, bespectacled, and far from well-groomed tactician with a sizeable task to overcome the doubt surrounding his appointment. But there was no sense of panic – Sarri had slowly but surely worked his way through the leagues in over 25 years as a coach, and with that had come a necessity for patience. His early training sessions at Napoli were exhaustive in detail, in order to ensure that every aspect of his 4-3-1-2 system was ingrained into his players.

Napoli’s results soon picked up, and accompanied by often electrifying displays of swift, attacking football, they were crowned Serie A’s winter champions. Any critics that remained were dwindling in numbers. There had been a drastic change from the previous season, Benítez’s side looking almost tepid in comparison. Sarri had taken the talented players at his disposal, the likes of Marek Hamšík, Lorenzo Insigne and Gonzalo Higuaín, and created a team full of attacking expression while also supremely well organised.

Higuaín had been prolific and would end the season with an incredible 36 Serie A goals, but it was Insigne’s improvement that was the most notable influence Sarri had in attack. The diminutive Italian was a player with undoubted potential, although having played predominantly as a winger, he had yet to reach a level of consistency to be considered a top player. He is talented, but hasn’t got the best out of himself yet,” Sarri said before the season had started. “According to Arrigo Sacchi, he’s the most talented Italian player right now.”

Insigne was eventually utilised on the left side of a front three and performed superbly as Sarri opted to change to a 4-3-3 system. Insigne was given the freedom to roam inside, becoming a virtual trequartista, and allowing for the overlapping runs of Faouzi Ghoulam at left-back. He benefitted from the unerringly clinical Higuaín – as did all of his team-mates – but this was more than just a team relying on a good striker.

Napoli eventually missed out on the Scudetto, finishing nine points behind Juventus, who secured their third successive title. There was certainly not a sense of disappointment, however. Napoli had excelled and played phenomenal football throughout an entertaining and surprising season. Only Roma scored more goals than the 80 of Sarri’s side, while Juventus could only better their defensive record of 32 goals conceded. Most notably, Sarri had led Napoli to a finish 19 points better off than their total of the previous season.

As successful as Sarri’s first season was on the pitch, it was not without controversy off it. Then Inter Milan manager Roberto Mancini accused the Napoli coach of homophobia during his side’s 2-0 Coppa Italia quarter-final win at the Stadio San Paolo in January of last year. “Men like him should be drummed out of football,” Mancini fumed. “I got up to ask the fourth official why there were five minutes of added time. Sarri then got up and shouted ‘p**f’ and ‘f****t’ at me. I went to find him in the locker room and he apologised, but I want him to be ashamed of what he said.”

Sarri was consequently fined €20,000 and banned for two Coppa Italia matches by Lega Serie A for ‘directing extremely insulting epithets at the coach of the opposing team’.

Sarri has never been a pretender. He has no illusions of grandeur, and is clearly not without flaws, but it is part of what makes him such an intriguing and forward-thinking coach. His lawyer, Marco Titi describes him as such: “Sarri is an extremely intelligent individual and on a cultural level superior than the average person in the world of football. A man of unique brilliance and kindness. Perhaps he should look at the ways of his colleagues when giving interviews but it is not his way of doing things. He prefers to let the pitch do the talking. On a human level, he is a very pleasant person to listen to and from whom you can learn many things.”

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The 2016/17 season at Napoli began with the sale of Higuaín to Juventus for €90 million, a blow for Sarri but one which proved to be unavoidable. He was now without the player who had scored over 40 percent of the club’s total goals last season, who had been the spearhead of almost every breathtaking attacking move they had created.

A disappointing 2-2 draw against Pescara on the opening day was followed by a rather more satisfying 4-2 victory over AC Milan. Napoli’s form during the first months of the season was steady, but three league defeats in October left them some way off the pace and seemingly struggling to maintain the consistency of the previous season. Since a 2-1 defeat at league leaders Juventus in late October, however, Napoli were irresistible, embarking on one of their best runs in recent history.

Sarri was left with the dilemma of finding a solution to the loss of Higuaín, and what decided to do has proved nothing less than a masterstroke. Arkadiusz Milik suffered a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament and faced a long spell on the sidelines, while Manolo Gabbiadini struggled to adapt to Sarri’s methods and was subsequently sold to Southampton. With his options limited, Sarri chose to try Belgian winger Dries Mertens in a false nine role, and it worked brilliantly. The former PSV wide man has adapted with consummate ease to his new central role, scoring more goals than many would have ever imagined from the 30-year-old.

The positional switch of Mertens brought with it a subtle but noticeable change in Napoli’s style. Without a traditional number 10, there has been an increase in short passing and interplay between the front three of Insigne, Mertens and José Callejón, and less crossing as a result. Hamšík has also benefitted greatly from Sarri’s use of Mertens, pushing forward from the midfield trio and often occupying the space left by the retreating Belgian.

These tactical nuances were all apparent in what was perhaps Napoli’s most impressive victory since Sarri took control. In February 2017, they travelled to Bologna, unbeaten in 11 games and having beaten Torino in a thrilling encounter that ended 5-3. The hosts were in mid-table, certainly not a pushover by any means, but what followed was an exhilarating, breathtaking display of attacking football.

Napoli were 4-1 up at half-time – even with Callejón sent off – and in the second half added three more goals in a 7-1 rout. Hamšík scored a hat-trick from midfield, as did Mertens – his third of the season – in a perfect demonstration of the aesthetically pleasing yet meticulously planned football that Sarri aims for.

Sarri had been asked earlier in the season whether he had any intention of changing from a 4-3-3 system and replied: “One of my coaches used to tell me that people who speak about formations don’t know anything about football. We already play with Marek [Hamšík] between the lines, then with the forwards between the lines. Maybe you can also change too much, causing you to lose the certainties of the team.”

It may sound pretentious but Sarri is simply a devout student of the game. Tactically, he has earned comparisons with the likes of Pep Guardiola, with some claiming that he is in a way dogmatic. In reality, he is, like Guardiola, simply determined to adhere to his own philosophy, but always willing to adapt it how he sees fit.

Sarri’s time at Napoli so far has been exciting, progressive and inspiring, and he is certainly no longer a coach struggling to get recognition. “For me, it has been gratifying to have had a long career starting from the bottom,” he said. “It’s been educational, particularly because certain levels teach you more and make you grow more. I think it’s a path which, generalising, everybody should do, but then there are big exceptions.”

Perhaps the biggest compliment for Sarri is that even Maradona has now offered his apology. “I said what I thought of him, then he changed and I recognised my mistake. I really like how his Napoli plays.” High praise indeed, although for Sarri, it’s likely that he will only feel fully gratified when he has led Napoli to silverware.

By Callum Rice-Coates  @callumrc96

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