The 2014/15 campaign was Empoli’s first at the highest level of Italian football in seven years. They were expected to go down immediately, though by the time they welcomed Rafa Benitez’s Champions League-chasing Napoli to the Stadio Carlo Castellani for the 33rd matchday they were in a decent position to avoid relegation. Prior to that game they had beaten Lazio, and had drawn with Inter, Roma, and Milan (twice).
At times during that season, Empoli had gotten in their own way. Their unwavering focus on controlling possession and building from the back was admirable, but not always effective. But their head coach, Maurizio Sarri, was absolutely against a change of style. “We’ve been working together for three years, so we have our own identity,” he told Sky Sport Italia in late 2014 after a defeat to Juventus. “Even if we end up bottom of the table, we must always play our style of football.”
Such resolute unwillingness to yield to convention was what made this period in Empoli’s history so special. They weren’t afraid of imposing themselves on bigger teams, as Benitez’s Napoli found out on April 30, 2015.
Empoli lined up in their usual 4-3-1-2 shape that day, and went 1-0 up inside eight minutes. Massimo Maccarone – yes, that Massimo Maccarone – peeled off the Napoli back line to fire home from close range. Attacking midfielder Riccardo Saponara, who, like Maccarone, was rejuvenated back at the club where he first made his name, engineered a second before adding a scissor-kicked third. The score was 3-0; the game was over and done with before half-time.
Despite a mild fightback, Sarri’s side held on to win 4-2. They went on to finish in 15th place, ensuring Serie A football for at least another season. Sarri himself wouldn’t preside over it, however. Instead, he was off to replace Benitez at Napoli. He took several players with him, including Mirko Valdifiori, who enjoyed a particularly rapid, and unexpected, rise to the top during his time with Sarri at Empoli.
Having previously hovered between the second and third tiers, Valdifiori suddenly found himself rubbing shoulders with his hero Andrea Pirlo. Even more incredibly, at 28 years of age, he was being compared to his hero, thanks mainly to his no-look, first-time long balls over the top of opposition defences, and was briefly considered as a possible playmaking successor to Pirlo for the Italian national team. Ultimately he made his international debut in 2015, starting in a 1-1 friendly draw with England.
Along with individual players, Sarri took his style with him to Napoli. However, that didn’t necessarily mean it left Empoli. He was succeeded in the hot-seat by Marco Giampaolo, who was determined to build on the groundwork laid down before him. “I have known Maurizio Sarri for a lifetime and there will be a continuity to the ideas we want to put out on the field,” Giampaolo said. “This is a legacy that will not be forgotten.”
He was true to his word, too. Many predicted a harsh decline for Empoli with Sarri, their ideologue, gone, but they once again confounded expectations, surviving and thriving while playing some of the most attractive football in the division. They scored more, conceded less, won more, and gained more points, finishing in 10th place, their highest league position in almost a decade. And, while they didn’t take quite so many points off of Italy’s traditional giants in 2015/16, they never stopped trying to.
Juventus were unbeaten in Serie A for 20 games when they hosted Giampaolo’s Empoli on April 2, 2016. Massimiliano Allegri’s side had recovered from a terrible start to the season, overtaking Napoli to top the table with a sequence of wins. They were relentless, but they couldn’t control their visitors on this occasion.
Empoli started brightly, quickly establishing the flowing possession game that had drawn neutral fans and tactical analysts alike from all over Europe to watch them play. In the 12th minute, they embarked upon a 31-pass move that saw them build out from goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski, gradually through the centre, then up the right-hand side to force a corner kick. This spell of uninterrupted possession involved nine of their 11 players, and lasted for one minute and 18 seconds. For a short while, it was hard to tell which team was on the cusp of a fifth straight league title. Empoli went on to lose 1-0, but dominated the ball, enjoying 59 per cent possession.
Giampaolo made some slight tweaks to Sarri’s style, but they were barely noticeable. Mainly, he made the team a more compact unit with and without the ball, and got them to play through the centre more often, making full use of the diamond midfield. With Leandro Paredes replacing Valdifiori in the conductor role, the transition between coaches was as smooth as could be.
Yet again, however, Empoli found it impossible to keep hold of their talent. Paredes went back to Roma, and Giampaolo left for Sampdoria. With others such as Lorenzo Tonelli, Mario Rui and Piotr Zielinski also moving on, their squad was left decimated for the 2016/17 campaign. They tried to continue with their unique philosophy, appointing Giovanni Martusciello – previously the assistant to both Sarri and Giampaolo – as head coach, but a second exodus was too much to take. They were relegated with the lowest goals scored total in the league.
Empoli shrugged off that disappointment quickly, however, and will be back in Serie A next season having recently sealed promotion as Serie B champions. When they return, they will come face to face with the ideas and players they housed and developed during their previous spell at the top level, the tactical and psychological impact of which is difficult to calculate.
Between 2014 and 2016, they proved that it was possible not only to compete, but to compete beautifully while possessing one of the smallest budgets in the league. For two consecutive seasons, they were in Serie A’s top seven for average possession and top six for short passes per game. Essentially, they were a one-team advertisement for the concept of organic growth within a deeply regimented footballing environment.
The after-effects of this are still seen today. Napoli are on course to break a club record for points in a single season thanks to the fluid attacking game Sarri first implemented at the Stadio Carlo Castellani, while Giampaolo’s possession-focused Sampdoria could yet qualify for the Europa League. Elsewhere, bottom-of-the-table Benevento, perhaps encouraged by Empoli, have refused to forgo their own offensive principles despite imminent relegation.
There is an argument to be made that, right now, calcio is more attack-minded and open than ever before. If this does become a genuine ingrained footballing identity, then Italy – just as Spain did Barcelona and Holland did Ajax – must attribute a great deal of the credit to Empoli.