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An absolute joy to watch and tactically absorbing, are Napoli set for a defining season?

Under Maurizio Sarri, the side offer up an absolutely outstanding style of play.

Image: Andreas Gebert

ATLETICO MADRID MAY have won the Audi Cup after a penalty shootout victory over Liverpool but the most eye-catching performances came from Napoli.

Since Maurizio Sarri’s arrival as manager in 2015, the club has forged a magnificent playing style and finished second and third in the last two Serie A seasons.

2016/17 was a particular revelation. They accumulated four more points than the previous campaign but finished one place lower. Still, it was a remarkable performance. The team scored 94 times in 38 games – the highest tally in the top-flight. They lost just four times all season – a better record than both second-placed Roma and champions Juventus.

And all of that was in spite of having sold key striker Gonzalo Higuain to Juve the previous summer.

Under Sarri, the team has a superb attacking ethos but it’s a testament to the coach that they have thrived and become even more explosive since Higuain’s departure.

In his usual 4-3-3, he elected to try Dries Mertens – a player not even considered to be first-choice – as a false nine, with support from the likes of Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne out wide and Marek Hamsik from a slightly deeper role.

Germany: SSC Napoli v FC Bayern Muenchen - Audi Cup 2017 Source: NurPhoto

It proved a masterstroke as Mertens – rather inexplicably – blossomed and began to plunder goals at an astonishing rate. By the end of 2016, he was voted Belgian Footballer of the Year. Come the end of the term, he had struck 28 times in the top-flight – just one short of the Golden Boot. Still, it was four more than Higuain and the biggest return Mertens had ever managed in his career – at the age of 30.

He slotted seamlessly into Sarri’s system, where the attacks are quick, incisive and devastating. It helped that he could rely on Callejon, Insigne and Hamsik so much. Between the three of them they racked up 31 league assists. But, Mertens managed nine of his own as well.

Napoli’s undoing was their eight drawn games but, by the looks of their pre-season work, they could be lining up a defining 2017/2018.

Essentially, as much as the forward play is electric to watch, everything revolves around the players’ comfort on the ball in tight areas.

When so many teams play a high press and try to pressurise and force errors close to their opponents’ goal, the objective from the opponent – when it’s countered properly – is not just to alleviate the pressure but turn it into opportunity.

Sarri has immersed his team completely in that way of thinking and their execution is sensational.

They made many friends with their approach, particularly last season, and some isolated passages of play from their Audi Cup games (they lost 2-1 to Atleti and beat Bayern 2-0) shows that when Sarri’s strategy is carried out well, it’s just electric.

This clip is from their opening game against Atleti. Every player takes a maximum of two touches before playing the pass. Never do the players lose composure or panic. There’s an intelligence to the positions each individual takes up and it’s all geared to countering at pace.

A different type of clip from their game against Bayern with more medium and long-range passing in the final third but the same reaction to the press at the back.

Napoli have been close in recent seasons. Who knows? Maybe it’s the closest they’ll ever come. But if Sarri’s superb work can continue for a while longer, they may be set to step up and deliver.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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