Chelsea fans weren’t exactly distraught when it became clear that Maurizio Sarri would leave for Juventus. Despite guiding the club back into the Champions League via a third-place finish and lifting the Europa League at the end of the season, the Italian was never really accepted at Stamford Bridge.
But back in Italy, at Sarri’s previous club Napoli, they feel much more strongly about the move. One of Sarri’s favourites at Napoli, local boy Lorenzo Insigne, summed up the feeling in the city and its response to their former boss’s latest career move. “Sarri in Juventus, for Neapolitans, would be a betrayal,” he said. “But you have to keep in mind that Sarri is a professional and he gave everything in Naples. He was very important to me, if he went to Juventus he would hurt us but I can’t blame him. It’s his decision.”
During his time at the San Paolo, he guided Napoli to the three most successful seasons in their history, at least when it came to win percentage and points gained, but they were unfortunate to be up against the unstoppable Juventus juggernaut and a Scudetto ultimately eluded them.
That Sarri’s Napoli were so close to stopping Juventus was in itself a massive achievement. He rallied against the perennial champions to help gain every advantage he could, famously showing the Juve fans his middle finger as the Napoli bus drove through Turin.He once said, “We need to have striped shirts,” when asked why i Partnopei didn’t seem to get many penalty decisions in their favour, and his style of play epitomised the al di la del risultato slogan often displayed by Napoli fans, which puts forward the idea that football is about more than the result.
The response to the move from the official Napoli account on Twitter played on Sarri’s superstitious nature by wishing him good luck, but included a number of Neapolitan-Italian superstitions which showed they didn’t really mean it and were attempting to place a curse on their former boss’s time in Turin.
Bentornato in Italia Mr Sarri! #SarriDay
— Official SSC Napoli (@sscnapoli) June 20, 2019
There are reports that Sarri once bumped into a player’s car while driving into the training ground at former club Sansovino. They won their next game, so the next day when driving into the training ground, Sarri made sure to give the same car another bump.
The one Napoli player who moved with Sarri to Chelsea has also had his say. “I think it was a great season and I’d hate to see him go,” said Jorginho, who came to epitomise Sarriball especially during the spell in Naples. “The Napoli fans still have him in their hearts, it’s normal that they can get angry. They’re passionate, they can give you everything. They could treat it as a betrayal, they’re like that. We’ll see what happens.”
Napoli fans took Sarri to their hearts during the three seasons they had together. He grew up in Tuscany, and commented during his time managing Tuscan side Empoli: “I don’t feel Tuscan – I am. We are sincere, polemical, but true.”
But Sarri was born in the Bagnoli area of Naples, and this was the only detail of his childhood Napoli fans were interested in. Prior to taking the Empoli job, which was the beginning of Sarri’s rise to the top of the managerial game, there was an early taster of Neapolitan life during his time as manager of Sorrento.
One of the players he managed there, right-back Ronaldo Vanin, has since given some insight on the man many now know, from a time when few did. “Maurizio didn’t only want to win, he wanted more,” Vanin told the Guardian last year, again echoing the ‘more than the result’ sentiment. “Sarri is a perfectionist but in a good way. If you miss a pass by 10cm, he looks for ways to improve you.
“His idea is that the team should memorise what they should do. During every session, you go over the same script while having fun. His view is that training should never be too long, you must always have the ball at your feet and the defensive line must be perfect. Off the pitch he’s a marvellous person; on the pitch he’s very demanding.”
He took this with him to Empoli and took the Gli Azzurri from Serie B to Serie A in 2014, not only gaining promotion but avoiding relegation the season after. His time there also busts that myth that he is only about the 4-3-3, something which has been widely suggested since his involvement with higher-profile teams.
At Empoli he deployed a 4-3-1-2 formation, almost a 4-4-2 diamond, but the most important thing, and a sign of things to come, was the compact, possession-based football which would later be present in his 4-3-3 at Napoli. At Empoli, Mirko Valdifiori was Sarri’s original press-resistant passer, while Riccardo Saponara played the number 10 role which the coach hasn’t really used to such an extent since.
Massimo Maccaroni, then in his mid-30s, occupied one of the positions up front, reaching double figures for goals and also registering seven assists in the club’s first season back in Serie A. “I owe a lot to Sarri,” said Maccaroni. “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. My strike partner Francesco 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.”
In terms of changing things up, Sarri also recently spoke of having to adapt his tactics at Chelsea to get the most from Eden Hazard. “In recent years, I’ve had 4-3-3, but the 4-3-3 at Chelsea was very different to the one at Napoli,” he said. “We had to accommodate Hazard’s characteristics as he could change the game, but also his presence caused issues in defending that we had to work on.”
A subtle change to the 4-3-3 altered Hazard’s game for the better as much as it altered Sarri’s tactics. The Belgian didn’t have the defensive work rate of Lorenzo Insigne, who had played as the left inside-forward for Sarri’s Napoli, but eventually Hazard was working to win the ball back high up the pitch.
In his final and most productive season at Chelsea, only two Premier League forwards won possession in the attacking third more than Hazard.
There have been suggestions that Sarri will revert to the 4-3-1-2 at Juventus, and there’s the giddying prospect of a strike duo of Cristiano Ronaldo and Moise Kean with Paulo Dybala – if he stays – in the hole as the number 10. If he could get Maccaroni firing in his mid-30s, imagine what he could do with Ronaldo. In Douglas Costa, Sarri also has an elite dribbler – on a similar level in that regard to Hazard – who would be perfect for a 4-3-3.
With Sarri you never know who he’s likely to favour until he rocks up at his new team and watches his players train, assessing who already has what it takes to implement his style and who might need to put the hours in at training in order to adapt. Those hours can easily turn into weeks, months and even a year for those players, but Sarri will not give up on trying to teach them his ways if they’re willing and able to learn.
As we have already seen, and as is evident in that Guardian article by Fabrizio Romano, many of the players he’s worked with speak in glowing terms of the manager and his training methods.
Grazie Mister Sarri. You have taught me a lot & you've made me a better player. Thanks for this! Wishing you all the best and success for the future. 🙏🏾💙 #Hustle #AlwaysBelieve @ChelseaFC pic.twitter.com/t1FC0nBvIc
— Antonio Rüdiger (@ToniRuediger) June 16, 2019
— César Azpilicueta (@CesarAzpi) June 16, 2019
But at Juventus he will not only have the task of winning over a new group of players: given his Neapolitan roots, the fans will take some convincing, too, perhaps as much, if not more, than those at Chelsea.
He did all he could at Stamford Bridge, exceeding early season predictions which had Chelsea finishing outside the top four, and ending his own personal trophy drought with an impressive Europa League win. “I am pleased that Napoli congratulated me, the Neapolitans know how much love I have for them,” said Sarri, responding to comments from Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis after the win. “I dedicate this firstly to the Napoli fans, because this is the satisfaction I was unable to give them last year.”
There will be no time for a trophy drought at Juventus, and there will be even less time for praise for his former Serie A club. Silverware is now the one and only aim and the one i Bianconeri crave most is the biggest of them all – the Champions League. It feels like success in that tournament will be the only way for Sarri to win over the fans.
It’s a mammoth task, and the odds seem against him even more so than in west London. The relationship with Chelsea media and fans soured as the season progressed, but at Juventus there are doubts from the off. Even though the players like him, and even if the club’s hierarchy like working with him, Sarri’s biggest challenge could be off the pitch with fans and media – again.
By James Nalton @JDNalton