How Maurizio Sarri forged his philosophy during three entertaining Empoli years

How Maurizio Sarri forged his philosophy during three entertaining Empoli years

Empoli avoided relegation from Serie B in rather fortuitous circumstances during the 2011/12 season. The Tuscan outfit found themselves in the pressurising palaver of the relegation playoff after finishing 18th. Dropping down to the third tier of Italian football would have been a cataclysmic failure for the club, who had been in Serie A just four years earlier.

Thankfully for Gli Azzurri, they kept their heads above water courtesy of a dramatic second leg against Vicenza. After the away fixture had finished 0-0, Empoli took their counterparts back to Stadio Carlo Castellani and narrowly defeated them 3-2, as on-loan forward Massimo Maccarone secured their status in the division with a 94th-minute winner.

It was a turbulent period for Empoli. They had worked their way through eight different managers in the space of five years, and three of these had transient stints in charge in 2011/12. Alfredo Aglietti began the campaign as the boss, but Giuseppe Pillon replaced him before too long. Guido Carboni then stepped in as Empoli attempted to salvage their season, only for Aglietti to make a shock return to the hot-seat to temporarily steady the ship and keep them up.

Despite the minor glory enjoyed by the returning boss, the Italian club were ruthless. There was an inescapable sense that, despite the high of surviving the drop by the skin of their teeth, the lows of the campaign deduced that change would be necessary. In what was an ambitious move, they appointed Maurizio Sarri, a former bank clerk and amateur centre-back.

Thus far, the Naples-born tactician had spent the entirety of his coaching career in the lower leagues of calcio, battling to establish the perfect match for his personality and philosophy at impatient clubs. This reluctance to settle led to untimely dismissals and apologetic resignations, but Sarri met his match with Empoli. After being harshly sacked by Sorrento midway through the preceding campaign, he imposed his authority and claimed the vacant managerial post at Stadio Carlo Castellani ahead of the 2012/13 season. It was a risky appointment, but Gli Azzurri were in the safe hands of a chain-smoking innovator with big plans for his new team.

Sarri walked into a club in dismal mood. The players were bereft of confidence despite the unforgettable mini-triumph over Vicenza in the relegation playoff, and the supporters had grown despondent with the lack of stability. Empoli had capable players within their ranks, with a blend of experienced heads and bustling young talents, but a prerequisite for consistent success was the implementation of a tactical system that would extract the very most from the tools at the club’s disposal.

Thankfully for Empoli, they had finally struck gold with their latest appointment after a catalogue of errors. Sarri entertained the club’s supporters and instilled an identity for his new club. Pride was restored, and a fresh impetus was developed, with the younger players in the squad coming of age. 

The promising Lorenzo Tonelli emerged as a fundamental player under the new manager. He cemented his position in the boss’s plans, while other prospects also worked their way into contention. After shining at youth level, Albanian full-back Elseid Hysaj put his versatility to good use to act as a rotational option for Sarri on both flanks of the defence. It wasn’t just the youthful exuberance of Empoli that would see them enjoy success, however. Davide Moro, who captained the team, would play a vital part, and following three spells at the club, went down as something of a cult hero in Tuscany. 

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Gli Azzurri would pass and move their way through the season as they learned a system unique compared to the traditional Catenaccio approach of Italian football. Such rigour was oft-observed in Serie A, but few teams had taken to Serie B with as much attention to detail as Sarri’s Empoli. They rightfully earned a reputation as the division’s entertainers for the slick, intense football that pushed them from an 18th-place finish in the previous season to promotion contenders in the space of only a year.

Empoli finished fourth in Serie B during their new manager’s maiden campaign at the club. They found themselves in the promotion playoff places and, after scraping past the reach of a hammer blow that would knock them down to the third tier just one season prior, they were flirting with the distinct possibility of promotion to the top flight. 

The team were convincing in the semi-finals. A tightly-contested away leg against Novara – incidentally managed by Aglietti – saw them take a 1-1 draw back to Stadio Carlo Castellani. However, the second leg proved to be comfortable for Empoli as Sarri’s men ran riot, clinching a 4-1 win to book their place in the playoff final. He led his men into the clash in high spirits, but fine margins would cost the team a fairytale return to Serie A. 

Livorno struggled against Brescia over two legs but progressed to the final, where they locked horns with an in-form Empoli. Francesco Tavano drew first blood in the tie as he gave Gli Azzurri the upper hand, but their counterparts responded courtesy of a goal from Alfred Duncan. It was a fretful 180 minutes, with neither side budging as both clawed and scrapped to clinch promotion. However, it was Livorno who reigned supreme as Paulinho netted the decisive goal at Stadio Armando Picchi, leaving Empoli with an obverse sensation to the joy that overwhelmed during the previous season’s playoff final.

The disappointment of falling at the final hurdle cut deep for the club. In truth, though, they had over-achieved to a seismic extent, particularly when their treacherous start to the season is considered. Empoli failed to win a single Serie B game in their opening nine outings, amassing a paltry four points. The all-too-familiar feeling of misery had surfaced once again as a glum season appeared to be in store for Empoli, with the risk they had taken by appointing Sarri initially failing to bear fruit. A 3-0 home defeat to Ascoli, who would later be relegated, piled the pressure on the manager. They were left in 21st place, with Grosseto the only team beneath them, but had racked up the worst goal difference in the league at this point with a negative 12 to their name. 

Sarri seemed confused; out of his depth, some would say. Tavano, who proceeded to lead the line excellently, scoring 21 times in Serie B, hadn’t featured in six of the nine winless fixtures. Empoli looked blunt in attack and leaky in defence – a marriage of deficiencies that so often lead to inevitable outcomes of relegations for teams.

During this testing period, the manager was in experimental mood. Six different formations were deployed: three-at-the-back systems; narrow shapes; approaches that contained wingers, and other tactical tweaks. It was as through Sarri was trying too hard to stumble upon his strongest starting line-up, which led to a lack of chemistry, organisation and, in turn, success on the pitch.

However, as scrutiny began to cloud the former bank clerk’s future in Tuscany, a change of fortunes occurred. After their abominable start to the season, they would proceed to lose only four more Serie B fixtures in 2012/13, as excellent displays and tactical nous saw them climb the table. Sarri settled on a 4-3-1-2 system, accommodating two number eights, a regista just behind, and a number 10, creating a diamond in midfield to support an orthodox strike partnership. The approach ensured that Empoli could overrun teams in central zones while supplying the prolific pairing of Tavano and Maccarone with sufficient service to flourish. It was a paradoxical style, revolving around possession and ball retention while creating chances via direct passing through opposition lines.

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This formation would see Empoli enjoy success that had appeared far from their grasps in 2012/13, but the first win of Sarri’s tenure actually came via a 3-5-2 shape – the last of his experiments. Gli Azzurri halted the rut with a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Virtus Lanciano. Maccarone, a loanee from Sampdoria, Riccardo Saponara and Franco Signorelli fired their side to three invaluable points on the road.

If Empoli’s first nine encounters of the season were damaging, their following nine were remedial. They scored 24 goals and won all but two matches, as a 3-2 defeat to Crotone and a 2-2 draw against Spezia briefly interrupted a rampant run of form. By the time the winter break had arrived – capped by a 3-0 away victory at Reggina – Sarri had seen his team spread their wings. The transformation had been nothing short of remarkable, and the stylish Empoli were left with a glimmer of hope that they would return to Serie A after their prolonged absence. 

Empoli had their manager to thank for this success. He was criticised at the beginning of the season but, as has been perennial throughout his time as a coach, his stubbornness prevailed. His unwavering belief in how football should be played and his confidence in the philosophy he was imposing was bold, but he reaped the rewards as the club sat in fifth place by Christmas. 

Most memorable that season was the proficiency of the team’s attackers. Tavano and Maccarone were deadly; neither had age on their side and yet they put their experience to good use, with the former scoring 23 in all competitions while his strike partner plundered 18.

Maccarone discussed how Sarri enabled him to flourish for Empoli, as he maximised the capabilities of his two front-men. “I owe a lot to Sarri”, the former Middlesbrough man said. “When I signed for Empoli, I was demotivated, and he gave me back the desire to play football. The minute I started working with Maurizio, I couldn’t wait for Sunday to arrive so that I could play. I can tell you that if you work with Sarri, you feel as if you are on another planet.

“Maurizio knows how to give you confidence in your ability, but he is also with you every step of the road, checking on how you are doing, noticing what you are doing right and wrong. The consistency and quality of the training sessions are remarkable, and players respect him. At Empoli, my strike partner Tavano and I were 33 and 34, so Sarri found a tactical approach which enabled him to play in a way that didn’t fatigue us too much. It worked perfectly, and then players follow blindly.”

Following the boss blindly proved to be a clever idea for his disciples, who would bask in the glory of promotion in the 2013/14 season to return to Serie A for the first time since they succumbed to relegation from the top tier in 2008. Familiar with his group of players, Sarri steered Empoli back to the top, and they finished in second place behind a Palermo side whose attacking talents – Paulo Dybala, Abel Hernández, Andrea Belotti and Kyle Lafferty – won them the title.

Gli Azzurri this time had enough to see them through to the top flight, but stylistically, little had changed. Sarri demanded the same degree of focus upon passing and movement and ensured that the hard yards committed on the training pitch were translated into exciting performances come matchdays. “My football is both application and fun,” Sarri once said. “And if you are having fun, it is less tiring. I’ve come to realise that there’s a child in every footballer, a child who is playing a game. That’s where the fun part is. And when players are having fun, they are more productive. Tactical rigour is important, but we must never lose sight of the game and making sure the child inside is enjoying himself.”

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Players would come and go at Empoli, but their principles would remain the same. The club were expected to feel the full force of Saponara’s exit after AC Milan snapped him up – he had, after all, directly contributed to 28 goals in all competitions during the 2012/13 season. But Sarri’s eye for talent and ability to shape players to suit his philosophy led to glory. Simone Verdi arrived on loan to fill the void left by the attacking midfielder’s departure, while young players such as Daniele Rugani and Mário Rui were handed integral responsibilities in the first team.

Il Mister was fearless in his decisions. A vivacious Empoli team was fielded, and faith was placed in the younger players on the books. Tonelli and Hysaj would proceed to enjoy more involved roles, while Rui and Rugani also grew more comfortable as the season progressed, with Vincent Laurini providing a solid, if occasionally erratic, option at right-back.

Such was the partnership that had formed between Tonelli and Rugani in central defence, Federico Barba, who arrived from Roma in the summer transfer window, was kept mainly on the sidelines after being acquired to solidify the team’s back-line. Hysaj, in particular, was among Empoli’s most impressive players. Naturally a right-sided full-back, he was scarcely fazed when asked to operate on the opposite flank. Rui arrived from Parma to provide a first-choice option at left-back, but the Albanian academy graduate’s flexibility gave Sarri a welcome selection headache. 

Arguably the most crucial cogs in Empoli’s system, however, were the midfielders. Mirko Valdifiori sat the deepest of the three and was indispensable. He was tasked with cutting off passing lanes for opposition players and dropping between his side’s two central defenders to offer himself as support when goalkeeper Davide Bassi had the ball. In possession, he aimed to seek vertical passes to the two of Daniele Croce, Signorelli or Moro, depending on whom Sarri selected, or to set Saponara away in the final third by utilising his outstanding vision.

The two box-to-box midfielders ahead of Valdifiori were crucial; they were responsible for pressing immediately when the ball was surrendered. They also had to provide the team with numerical and positional superiority in both the attacking and defensive phases to ensure that central overloads occurred in the opposition third, but Empoli were not susceptible to them while defending.

Once again at the top of the pitch, the strikers were productive, this time with Verdi’s effervescence and energy behind them. Maccarone, who remained at the club on loan for the season, scored 16 goals and assisted 12 in all competitions, while his partner-in-crime Tavano continued to impress, scoring 22 times. Manuel Pucciarelli also provided a reliable attacker to rotate with the two veterans.

Empoli set their stall out early and started as they meant to go on. They opened the campaign with a 3-1 victory over Latina, who finished in third place. A trip to Palermo would then await, where they won 2-1. Sarri saw his men make a flying start – a stark contrast from that of the previous season – and they didn’t lose a single match from their opening six.

The fearlessness that was boasted by Gli Azzurri throughout the campaign made them difficult to face and especially challenging to defend against. They cut teams apart with quick transitions and unequivocally sought dominance. Sarri’s team scored freely and remained at the top end of the table for the duration of the season; even in the more testing periods, the manager demanded that their style remained entertaining, fluid and easy on the eye. Winning ugly has never been considered by the former Sorrento boss, and he was not about to change his ways after he had reaped the rewards of his persistence. 

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Sarri didn’t once waver from his philosophy; if attacking football wasn’t on display, it simply wasn’t what he wanted from his team. Empoli’s president Fabrizio Corsi alluded to the manager’s insistence on a particular style, which was ingrained in the team as a by-product of hours upon hours of tactical work. “During every session, he transmits his knowledge of football, his idea, to every player,” Corsi said. “He defends his choice to play offensive football regardless of the opponent.”

The drama of the playoffs was not necessary for Empoli as they finished in second place in Serie B, reclaiming their top-flight status. What was so special about their campaign was not the promotion itself, but the manner in which it was constructed – through beautiful football in a style that had been scarcely seen in the second tier. It was the most significant achievement of Sarri’s managerial career to date; he didn’t have a trophy to show for his efforts, but his team’s desire to challenge the quintessential Italian style captured the hearts and minds of spectators. The chance to challenge himself against the top managers in the country was richly-deserved.

Empoli had been on an upward trajectory since appointing Sarri, but the former Fiorentina trialist was unwilling to rest on his laurels. He added to the ranks ahead of the team’s return to Serie A, with Matías Vecino arriving on loan from Fiorentina, along with Verdi and Rugani returning for temporary spells. Maccarone made his move to the club permanent, while Parma gave up their remaining 50 percent ownership rights to Rui. Promising Udinese midfielder Piotr Zieliński would also arrive at Stadio Carlo Castellani, but he failed to make much of an impact.

The well-travelled Tiberio Guarente also joined from Sevilla and was expected to play a vital part in the 2014/15 season, but a serious knee injury in October saw him sidelined for the vast majority of the campaign. Some signings paid greater dividends than others, but the manager had worked within the financial limitations of the club well, conducting typically shrewd business in the market.

Sarri did not take promotion lightly. It was by no means a free hit for the Italian, who had already come so far in his managerial career, and he was unwilling to take his foot off the gas. It was a chance for the boss to use the season at Empoli as a way to work his way into the thinking of top clubs in the country, and he did so by innovating his methods, notably via the use of a drone to monitor and analyse his team’s training sessions following their return to the top flight. 

Keeping a newly-promoted club up at any level is often a testing task in itself, but to do so while playing exciting football that is not modified to suit the profile of opposition is something far different. Sarri had discovered his winning formula, and there was little chance that he would be open to change. He remained faithful to his tried and trusted 4-3-1-2 shape and played in a way that would endear itself to the neutral – Empoli were arguably the most aesthetically pleasing team to watch in Italy at the time.

However, it was arguably a rude awakening for Gli Azzurri upon their return to the top. Anticipation for the new season soon dissipated after the team failed to win in their opening five games. Sarri did mastermind his first Serie A victory in a 3-0 triumph over Palermo at home courtesy of goals from Tonelli, Maccarone and Pucciarelli, but Empoli failed to genuinely build upon this. Beating i Rosanero relieved the pressure for a brief spell, but the win would prove to be the Tuscan club’s only one in their first ten outings, as they conceded 18 in the process. The mix of inexperience at the back, poor decision-making and toothlessness in the final third saw the team struggle, despite some eye-catching phases during matches. 

At the beginning of November, Empoli welcomed Juventus to the Carlo Castellani. They were the clear underdogs in this fixture but gave the Italian behemoths a run for their money, limiting them to half-chances for much of the game. Andrea Pirlo’s free-kick and Álvaro Morata’s curling shot condemned Sarri’s side to yet another cruel defeat, but heart and encouragement were taken from the manner in which the hosts played; with freedom, energy, guile and fearlessness. Empoli were not going to go down without a fight. 

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What followed the unfortunate loss against Massimiliano Allegri’s men was a watershed moment. As Sarri once again stood in the face of adversity, he didn’t flinch and orchestrated his team’s shock 2-1 win against Lazio. Barba opened the scoring for the hosts with a deft glancing header and, three minutes later, Empoli had left their counterparts stunned. In a moment of sheer tactical brilliance, Maccarone fired home after Zieliński took a quick free-kick, with i Biancocelesti flat-footed and less than attentive to the run of the veteran striker. Filip Đorđević’s header for the visitors would prove to be insufficient as Stefano Pioli and his side fell short at the hands of a masterclass from his counterpart in the opposite dugout.

Empoli’s win was lauded given its surprise element, but what should not have stupefied was how the game was won. Sarri has always been known to be particularly adept at organising unique methods of scoring goals from set-pieces, and Maccarone made the most of Zieliński’s intelligence. The goal owed to the execution of the two players, but their manager’s work was what truly paid off. During his time at lowly Sansovino, he was handed the nickname Mister 33, as it was believed that he had an arsenal of 33 different set-piece routines from all areas of the pitch.

Sarri ensured that this plethora of approaches from dead-ball situations became second nature to his players, and the volume of goals scored by his central defenders alone vindicated the manager’s focus on ingraining his original techniques in the squad’s style. Between Barba, Tonelli and Rugani in the 2014/15 season, 11 goals were scored in all competitions, reflecting the success enjoyed when players, as Maccarone alluded to, follow the boss “blindly”. 

The consistency with which Sarri’s men played stylish, attractive football coupled with the unrelenting threat from set-pieces was consequential to his focus upon repetition on the training pitch. Journalist Gabriele Marcotti referenced this, saying: “Many of his training sessions are based on endless repetition so that players get the coordination and timing essential to his game. Sarri tends to do this at a high pace, to ensure his sessions do not run for hours and to stop players getting bored. That emphasis on chemistry and repetition allows his players to pass the ball confidently into space, knowing a teammate will be there or on his way.”

Sarri’s loyalty to his own ideology was reflected by how he retained faith – not for the first time – in his youthful defensive unit, leading to telepathic relationships between the back-line and the midfielders, which helped Empoli play with their famed fluency and panache. Despite their teething problems, the back four of Hysaj, Tonelli, Rugani and Rui was favoured, largely as they were among the best technicians at Sarri’s disposal, with the two full-backs being notably impressive dribblers. Confident young goalkeeper Luigi Sepe also arrived from Napoli in the summer, and he proceeded to usurp Bassi as the club’s number one.

Rugani was excellent during Empoli’s first season back in Serie A. Such was the level of his performances that Juventus had been left totally convinced of his qualities and bought out his full ownership rights for a fee believed to be worth €3.5m in February 2015, allowing him to finish the season under Sarri. The centre-back played in every league match and didn’t pick up one booking, helping to earn him his first call-up to the senior Italy squad.

The precocious defender was not the only player who received international recognition for his displays at Empoli. Valdifiori was called up by Antonio Conte – the man who Sarri replaced and was then replaced by at Arezzo in November 2006 and March 2007 respectively – having shone for Gli Azzurri throughout the campaign.

His integration into the Italy squad was undoubtedly warranted. Valdifiori was the metronome of Empoli’s team and orchestrated play from a deep role. Sitting in a central role, with Croce and Vecino regularly flanking him in the middle, he would find passes to his midfield partners and would scan for runs from the attacking players before lofting balls over the top. The trio worked well together, and as the season progressed, their understanding grew.

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The vision of Valdifiori proved essential when teams would play high lines against Empoli, as his weight of pass could set Tavano or Maccarone away given their propensity to make penetrative runs. This resembled Sarri’s desire to see his side retain the ball at all costs but ensure that a blend of risky, forward passes was prominent in matches – a juxtaposing approach that worked to his players’ strengths.

Empoli had no problems with creating chances, but they did struggle to string wins together consistently. Following their 2-1 victory over Lazio, they went six games without losing. However, they won only once during this period as they clinched their first away win in Serie A at Parma, proceeding to draw their next five. In fact, the degree to which their habit of drawing games extended to was remarkable, as they were held on 18 occasions in the top flight – the most of any side in the division that season.

This period of five draws did see Sarri first make an impression on his next employers, Napoli. Empoli travelled to San Paolo without any pressure but came away disappointed by their failure to win. After going two goals up courtesy of Verdi and Rugani, the hosts fought back. Gli Azzurri impressed with their vertical style and quick passing patterns, and Rafa Benítez’s team got off rather lightly as the spoils were shared in a 2-2 draw.

Sarri would again deliver a footballing lesson against Napoli when his team welcomed them to Carlo Castellani later on in the season. Empoli were outstanding and suffocated their counterparts, sealing a shock 4-2 win. The team played with fluency, aggression and confidence; it was difficult to see which side the Serie A newcomers were. Saponara, who returned in the winter transfer window after a dismal spell at Milan, scored an outstanding overhead kick to lead Empoli to a big victory in front of their home faithful. 

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Sarri’s vision and belief that no team were insurmountable for Empoli was inspirational. “Whenever we had an important match against a bigger team, say Juventus or Milan, Sarri would give the players a speech that would last for an hour,” said Croce, who flourished under the manager’s tutelage. “He never said a word about playing defensively or limiting damage. Instead, he would say: ‘I want a bunch of crazy players who play to win even on this pitch. You need to be even more ambitious and arrogant than you normally are.”

Croce’s comments embody Sarri’s attitude as a manager and are a paradigm of how Empoli took their game to the next level under his stewardship. Their approach was refreshingly fearless, full-blooded and, above all else, entertaining, and it was this boldness and bravery that would earn the manager recognition beyond his wildest dreams. Gli Azzurri had to settle for a 15th-place finish in Serie A despite their unique style, but in truth, survival alone was a hope rather than one of the club’s expectations; all of which were surpassed in 2014/15. 

Sarriball had, for the first time, graced the top division of Italian football, and pastures new would await. Subsequent to three successful years at Stadio Carlo Castellani, he was snapped up by Napoli as they sought a new approach after Benítez had led them to a fifth-place finish. Marco Giampaolo, another progressive coach, took the reins at Empoli following the departure of their much-loved manager.

Having risen from humble beginnings, balancing training as a player with his day job as a banker, Sarri’s story is nothing short of phenomenal. Never fearful of drifting from the hegemonic values of how Italian football was played, the manager instructed his Empoli side to do things differently, and they were admirably exciting. The three seasons he spent in Tuscany proved to be the making of one of Europe’s most coveted tacticians, and the rest, as they say, is history.

By Luke Osman @LukeOsmanRS

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