Curtains For Carlo
As Napoli triumphed over Genk in a scintillating win that reminded fans of what could have been, the curtains closed on Carlo Ancelotti’s Neapolitan experience. Expectations were not met, pieces of the puzzle detaching progressively as time passed, until the decision to part ways paved the way for Gennaro Gattuso’s chance. What exactly went wrong in Ancelotti’s managerial spell at Napoli?
Written by Kareem Bianchi.
Since the early ages of football, discussions around the origins of a match’s outcomes could be divided into two classes of beliefs.
On one hand, there are those who asserted the predominance of tangible influences such as tactical and technical factors. These people usually put faith in causality and in powers that control and restore order in the chaotic nature of football.
Opposed to this group of rationalists, there are those whose beliefs stem from the intangible, as in all the elements correlated to the mind or physical condition. Although measurements can still be conducted to establish the quantity of the latter elements, or “essentials” – ironically somewhat contradicting the definition of intangible – and the degree to which they influence any given outcome, the amateur use of specialist designated terminologies led to the scission of these coexisting essentials.
The human need for simplification as a means for understanding is in full swing in the world of football. This steers away from the original conception of football as a series of elements that could only coincide by being aligned in a uniform direction, into an often misleading shortcut.
In practice, the steps are demonstrated when, at first, the players manage the ball’s direction through their technical abilities. Subsequently, the same players are the ones who dictate the course of the game with their tactical decisions, all under an overarching structure architected by the manager. At the same time, though, the mental and physical states interact with each other to make the action possible.
Therefore, by simplifying the processes into separate categories and ignoring the correlation between each step, fundamental parts of the chain are detached from each other.
Even so, if all the elements are in reality united in one fundamental unit, it’s undeniable that as each situation varies, so does the weight each variable holds. The most recent and clear example of such a formula can be noticed in the escalation that Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli crisis took.
Quand on parle de l'attitude honteuse des joueurs sur le terrain, voilà à quoi on fait référence. Cette action a eu lieu à la 81' minute lors du match d'hier alors que le score est de 1-1. pic.twitter.com/JzYIbPV1yB— SSC Napoli France (@NapoliCFrance) December 8, 2019
The pinnacle of Napoli’s crisis: in the 81st minute, with the score tied at 1-1, instead of rushing towards Udinese’s goal in an attempt to take the lead, Napoli’s players stroll around, triggering an annoyed reaction from Mario Rui.
When tactical issues first appeared to hold Napoli back, after a series of events it’s now evident how each step in the intensification held different accountability. But to understand the entirety of Napoli’s predicament, it’s necessary to take steps back, to when everything started turning sour for Ancelotti and his men.
It is hard to find the exact moment or causation that led to Napoli’s downfall, since for the most part of the season the feeling of positive outcomes papering over the cracks resounded through the air.
Since his arrival in Naples, Ancelotti has attempted a high-risk and high-reward strategy, that given the results, we can now, after a year and a half, deem unsuccessful. Either way, the transition from contender to elite, was always going to be complicated at a club still finding its place in the social ladder on numerous levels. With issues relating to the image rights haunting every transfer window and a president known for his loud and controversial statements, the atmosphere around the club still pollutes the environment, fending off established players and thus maintaining a significant barrier that separates Napoli from other established clubs.
Nonetheless, Napoli’s results on the pitch in the past seasons are undeniable, restoring some of the appeal on major names, as was the case when president Aurelio de Laurentiis lured the three times Champions League winner Carlo Ancelotti to Naples.
The manager’s mere status immediately fed the fans’ most lucid dreams, who all shared the same prospect of taking the definite step towards Juventus’ throne.
After finishing second in Ancelotti’s first season at the club, eleven points behind Juventus, Napoli currently sit in 7th place and a massive seventeen points separate the crisis-struck Napoli from leaders Inter after fifteen matches.
When Napoli just edged this campaign’s opener against Fiorentina with a dramatic 4-3 win and went on to trail 3-0 against Juventus after 62 minutes, it seemed already apparent how the prospects of a title-winning season were all but realistic unless Ancelotti intervened immediately. Despite the difficulties, though, the manager chose to stick to his ideas, receiving contrasting feedback from the two major competitions Napoli are involved in.
The Champions League has seen a Napoli side capable of remaining unbeaten against the champions Liverpool, but struggling against Red Bull Salzburg. In Serie A the collapse has been perpetual as if each low had an additional, unexplored layer to it.
In the beginning, despite a dull start to the season tinted with issues, Napoli still looked on track for a top-four finish, until, in the aftermath of a hard-fought 3-2 win away from home at Salzburg, all hell broke loose.
Reportedly, five Napoli veterans refused to go on a disciplinary training camp following some disappointing results, triggering a collective mutiny with scars still running deep one month later.
Napoli’s press statement regarding the incident.
Since that night, Napoli have failed to win in their eight subsequent outings, drawing six and losing two. However, the first alarm bells rang some time before the Salzburg night, when Napoli fell to Cagliari at home in their second loss of the season.
Twenty seconds into the game against Cagliari and Napoli’s tactical issues were already exposed.
Starting in a 3-4-2-1 formation featuring Piotr Zieliński and Allan, the home side lost possession in Cagliari’s final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. Marko Rog recovered the ball and after being shoved to the floor by an opponent, the ball fell to Nahitan Nández. During the Croatian’s short run, though, Napoli’s double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. had shifted towards the ball-carrier, exposing the center, where João Pedro could receive and assist Giovanni Simeone, who wasted a one-versus-one against the goalkeeper with a poor touch.
Not even one minute into the game and Napoli’s defensive issues echoed in the stadium; both midfielders were attracted to the ball, naively vacating the center for Cagliari’s breakthrough. At the same time though, Napoli’s possession is fluid, seeing combinations to progress the ball and rotations to create options around the ball-carrier. It is common to see the wing-back and attacking midfielder rotate, as well as the latter and the striker. When the wing-back comes into possession, the inside forward drops ahead to offer an option in the halfspace. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. Otherwise, if the attacking midfielder makes a run into depth, it’s the ball-side pivot who offers support in the halfspace, this time behind the wing-back. Compared to previous seasons, however, Napoli’s possession revolves around the flanks more, leading to a higher number of crosses and less central entries.
By keeping two players in the halfspaces and two constantly providing width, Ancelotti can force the opposition into the decision of whether to defend the center, allowing the center-backs to access the wing-backs through switches, A pass from one side to the other. or maintain immediate control on the wide men, enabling central passing to directly access the central players. Regardless of the defensive choices, Napoli is faced with, the diverse and fluid positioning provides a plethora of options that, when combined with an optimal staggering, become a challenging obstacle to deal with for most teams.
Against Cagliari’s narrow 4-3-1-2 defensive structure, Napoli could easily play long-balls to the wing into the high positioned wing-backs. However, once the ball landed, the opponents had already shifted to the ball-side, limiting the subsequent plays.
Moreover, the buildup immediately shed light on one of the causes of Napoli’s defensive inconsistencies. Given the width provided by Mario Rui and Callejón during possession phases while almost standing on the same line as the attackers, whenever the ball is lost Napoli find themselves without any instant cover on the wing, forcing the two midfielders to shift aggressively towards the ball. As a result, since the midfielders don’t always accompany the play, large distances between the midfield and attacking line prevents direct counterpressing After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. access due to lack of compactness, which means that the opponents have time to attract the pivots and then progress in the center or weak side.
Nández recovers possession and passes the ball into João Pedro, who can lay it off to Rog, leader of the counterattack.
In addition to the issues affecting the counterpressing and overall defensive transition, pressing situations appeared problematic too. Without the ball, Napoli defend in a 4-4-2 shape with Insigne and Callejón as the wingers. While the Spaniard has made a name for himself as a tireless worker, at least until his mindset was focused on the team’s well-being, the Italian creator isn’t always the most diligent without the ball, leaving the midfielders to cover for him in wide areas.
When building the play Cagliari’s 4-3-1-2 shape was faced with the two strikers’ pressing on the center-backs while the winger stepped out on the fullbacks. However, unlike many sides that construct their pressing system around the principles of cutting central options to direct the ball wide, Napoli often leave the center available due to superficial pressing angles. Therefore, the pivots are forced to press any ball that enters central areas, opening holes behind them. Furthermore, combined with Insigne’s inconsistent tracking Cagliari could easily access these spaces and stretch the midfield line horizontally by occupying the wing.
Napoli’s dysfunctional pressing leaves gaps on the wing and potentially behind the midfield presser.
Even when Ancelotti attempted to block the immediate access to the six by instructing Hirving Lozano to mark Christian Oliva, the ball near pivot would get drawn out by the opponent ahead of him; and since Insigne now pressed the center-back, it would be Zieliński’s duty to press the fullback, stretching the midfield’s horizontal compactness even further.
Cagliari is still able to access João Pedro behind the midfield, despite Ancelotti’s pressing adjustments, indicating persisting systemic issues.
To round off Napoli’s defensive problems, Cagliari’s winning goal eventually came on a counter, when all of the home sides’ attacking men were occupying the box, with the only Mario Rui high on the left flank, and the double pivot in rest defense. A team’s defensive organization at the moment that the ball is lost to the opponent. When Cagliari won a second ball on the edge of their penalty area and expertly launched a runner in the vacated left wing, they were able to carry the ball into the opposition final third without opposition, and – after waiting for some support – cross in the penalty box for the winner.
Minute 2:50, the action that leads to Cagliari’s winner.
Lack of passing lane cover due to poor pressing angles makes the defending players vulnerable to blind side If a defender looks one way, an attacker can try to make a run behind the defender’s back, on the side where he is not looking. This is called the blind side. runs and subsequent passes behind the presser/covering man. This forces the players on the line below to constantly step out in an attempt to slow down the play. However, in the process, due to the lack of vertical compactness that often prevents the covering player from accessing the opponent in time, space behind the presser is put at risk.
Interestingly enough though, pressing remains the most suitable approach to the players’ attributes and Napoli’s main weapon to dominate the opposition when all the mechanisms work. If Ancelotti’s men find a way to stay compact around the ball and push their opponents deep, they can be a threat to most teams. Yet, it is probably too late to expect Napoli to return on track from the twist their plot has taken.
Fast forward once again, almost three months later to the match against Udinese, and Napoli’s situation had only deteriorated, leading to the manager’s departure.
SSC Napoli has taken the decision to part ways with first-team coach Carlo Ancelotti.— Official SSC Napoli (@en_sscnapoli) December 10, 2019
The friendship and mutual respect between the club, President Aurelio De Laurentiis and Carlo Ancelotti remain intact.
Conflicts off the pitch played a major part in Ancelotti’s team’s downfall and it probably would be naive to ignore the effects these situations can have on player performance. The mere clash between players and manager would be enough to explain Napoli’s winless streak, as it is very likely that all the former were waiting for was the manager’s sacking. With the president having sided with Ancelotti however, the situation remained more complicated than ever, as any decision could have had drastic consequences.
De spelers van Napoli weigerden enkele weken geleden een trainingskamp. Voor president De Laurentiis een reden om gigantische boetes uit te delen. pic.twitter.com/epezNTfZgN— Willem Haak (@WillemHaak) November 26, 2019
2.3 million euros in fine was De Laurentiis’ punishment to the players after their refusal to attend a training camp.
On one side, there were Napoli’s assets – the players – on the other side the club’s image and the will of the fans, who chose to side with the president and explicitly challenge the players by booing and jeering them during open training sessions.
Napoli’s brand of football under Ancelotti was extremely ambitious and it now appears to have been faced with the limitations of a manager unable to efficiently organize the instructions required from his side. In this sense, it is interesting to notice how each of Ancelotti’s second seasons have seen a dip in performance related to the excessive normalization of the previous manager’s strategy.
During his first seasons, Ancelotti likely uses the work of his predecessors to maintain some foundations in the gradual process of implementing some of his adjustments. Ultimately though, the process has once again failed to meet the desired objectives and has, after Bayern’s complaints earlier, triggered Napoli’s players’ criticism of the Italian manager’s training methods. If the level of the players had previously somewhat hidden Ancelotti’s flaws, at Napoli he did not find the same world-class groups he managed in the past. Meaning that the results have not aligned with precedent managerial spells due to the individuals’ inability to guarantee consistent outcomes over an entire season amidst overarching setbacks. And when results don’t follow, player uprising is behind the door. The only difference stands in the extremes players are willing to delve into to maintain their position.
It is fair to say that Napoli players were willing to risk it all, and, as the moment of truth against Genk unfolded, Ancelotti’s fate was decided when Napoli officiated his departure, opening a new and hopefully brighter light for the newly appointed manager Gennaro Gattuso.