Maurizio Sarri’s route to the top hasn’t been the path well travelled. The tactician failed to carve out a playing career, and began his working life in banking while coaching grassroots football in Florence.
A slog through the lower leagues culminated in his taking unfancied Empoli into Serie A in 2014/15. He then led the Tuscans to a comfortable 15th-place finish while using an eye-catching 4-3-1-2 system in which the likes of Daniele Rugani, Elseid Hysaj and Riccardo Saponara flourished.
Eyebrows were raised at his appointment at the Stadio San Paolo two years ago, not least by Napoli great Diego Maradona (“I respect him, but he's not the right coach for a winning Napoli,” said the rent-a-gob Argentine upon Sarri's arrival) – but the club’s improvement under his guidance has been marked.
Better every season
Sarri oversaw a 19-point improvement as the Partenopei finished second in his first season in charge, before Napoli slipped just behind Roma into third during 2016/17. However, the final position is misleading, as his Azzurri side earned four more points, conceded seven fewer goals and finished with an improved goal difference in the coach’s second term.
That becomes more impressive when you consider that Sarri had to cope with the loss of top scorer Gonzalo Higuain to Juventus last summer, before the man brought in to replace him – Poland international Arkadiusz Milik – ruptured his cruciate ligament in October.
Enter Dries Mertens. Previously deployed as a winger, Sarri recognised the Belgium international’s potential as a centre-forward and was justified with a stunning 28-goal haul in Serie A.
Sarri's 4-3-3 system, with a high defensive line, aggressive pressing and verticality in attack, has produced a team full of goals – the front three of Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon netted 71 times in all competitions between them last season.
Napoli now want the 58-year-old tied down with a new contract, and nowadays he doesn’t have to look far for influential backers. Sarri been called a "genius” by Arrigo Sacchi, and Fabio Capello described him as someone “who can wake football up again”. He has come a long way from the banks of Florence.
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