Italy must follow Napoli’s example

Words By Blair Newman Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 28, 2018

Italy’s failure to reach the 2018 World Cup hasn’t properly hit home yet. It probably won’t until June, when the carnival of football and colour and noise gets underway. While other teams participate, the Azzurri will be at home, plotting their route to Euro 2020 and beyond. In truth, discussion over the country’s footballing future has already begun.

A new era is afoot, though admittedly it got off to a stuttering start. The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) have yet to appoint themselves a new president, and the national team is currently under the auspices of a caretaker coach in Luigi Di Biagio. Evidently the process of rejuvenation will be slow, but this patience is understandable – it has to be done right.

There is unlikely to be a new head coach for a few months, at least. “This requires calm, we are not ruling anyone out,” said temporary FIGC head Roberto Frabbricini. “The choice will be good and carefully thought out…Our deadline is before the start of next season.”

Amid this uncertainty, few have considered how Italy should play. And yet this is perhaps the great question that needs to be answered before any major decisions can be made. This isn’t a crisis, it’s a blip, but it could easily become a crisis if the long-term vision is unclear. The primary aim shouldn’t be to paper over cracks with immediate results, but to examine calcio’s tactical identity.

The Italian game isn’t what it used to be. This is not a point about levels – Juventus have, after all, reached two of the last three Champions League finals, and Roma have joined them in this year’s quarters. Rather, it is a point about methods. Giorgio Chiellini is arguably the last remnant of an old defensive style, a situation he has openly lamented.

“I believe the advent of (Pep) Guardiola’s style of football has changed the nature of something we in Italy did so well for many years, which is the art of defending,” he told Rivista Undici magazine last year. “Now lads who arrive in Serie A know how to spread the play and pass the ball, they can make a pin-point pass 40 metres away, but they haven’t the slightest idea how to man-mark or take players on on-on-one.”

It is arguable that the Italian national team achieved its best results decades ago, when built on man marking and one-on-one defending, but calcio has changed a great deal since then. Arrigo Sacchi’s zonal defence and Zdenek Zeman’s combinative attacking play altered Serie A in the 1990s, and the league hasn’t looked back since. This season a number of teams have showcased the sort of football Guardiola would appreciate, with Napoli unquestionably this style’s best Italian exponents.

Whenever a national team succeeds, the immediate response of the pundit, analyst and fan is to explain the success. There needs to be a reason. Sometimes there isn’t one key moment in the country’s footballing history, sometimes luck plays a major role – this is international knockout football we’re talking about. However, it is fair to point out that most of the consistently successful national teams are linked with similarly successful domestic club sides.

During Spain’s period of constant winning, Barcelona also dominated with a similar way of playing and many of the same players, including Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Carles Puyol. During Germany’s recent upturn, the more proactive defensive schemes deployed by the likes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were integral to the national team’s change of style. The new Italy’s identity could, and perhaps should, be shaped by Napoli.

Maurizio Sarri’s side line up in a 4-3-3 system and prefer a zonal approach over man-to-man defending. They keep an extremely high line and press aggressively, often looking to swarm the opposition ball-player, cut off passing lanes, and seal turnovers high up the pitch. They dominate the ball not only through the intensity of their pressing, but the quality of their possession. Building patiently from the back, they create triangles all over the pitch, always look to penetrate through the opposition, generally stick to one- and two-touch passing, and rotate positions to create space and opportunities in the final third.

Not only are Napoli’s ideas clear, but they work. And copycats are emerging – Marco Giampaolo’s Sampdoria play in a very similar manner, while others such as Luciano Spalletti’s Inter Milan and Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio share many of the same traits. The Azzurri have committed to practicality, flexibility and solid defence for much of the last 20 years, though these are no longer Serie A’s dominant tenets.

Adopting the Napoli system and style – 4-3-3 with aggressive pressing and increased emphasis on possession – would suit the new generation of players, including Napoli’s own Jorginho and Lorenzo Insigne. Elsewhere, Daniele Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli are centre-backs with excellent passing ranges; Alessandro Florenzi, Andrea Conti and Leonardo Spinazzola are extremely attack-minded full-backs; Marco Verratti is a refined midfield technician; while Federico Chiesa and Federico Bernardeschi are incisive wingers who like to operate in a front three.

The raw individual ingredients are already in place, and the framework is there for all to see. Napoli’s football is exalted, and the Italian national team should follow their lead.

Maurizio Sarri Napoli
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