Carlo Ancelotti does not believe in quick fixes. In his 2009 autobiography he explained that he learned the value of patience from his parents, both of whom worked on farms. “What you sowed, you reaped a year later,” he wrote. “There was no instant gratification.”
A successful harvest is required eventually, though, to keep your family fed. Ancelotti inherited a Napoli team in the summer of 2018 that was coming off a record-setting Serie A campaign, in which it collected 91 points but still finished as runner-up to Juventus. In his first season he guided them to a further second-place finish as well as the quarter-finals of the Europa League and Coppa Italia.
This season he expects more tangible success. “Second place is not enough any more,” he said in July. “We have to win something.”
A domestic title remains Napoli’s prime objective. They have won Serie A only twice in their history, both times inspired by Diego Maradona. Yet the experience of two seasons ago has this group believing that Juventus can be usurped, especially in a season when the reigning champions are adapting to life under a new manager – Maurizio Sarri – with whom Napoli are intimately familiar.
A Champions League run should also be a realistic goal for a team that beat Liverpool and drew twice with Paris Saint-Germain in the group stage last season, finishing behind the eventual champions only by virtue of goals scored. On paper Napoli look stronger than they were at this time last year. Ancelotti rated their summer transfer activity as a perfect 10/10.
Hirving Lozano was the headline addition: a quick-footed and versatile forward capable of filling in anywhere along the attacking line. Capped 37 times by Mexico, he scored the goal that sealed their World Cup win over Germany in 2018 and followed up with 22 more for PSV last season – including Champions League strikes against Tottenham and Internazionale.
The capture of Kostas Manolas from Roma, too, was a coup, one of Serie A’s better centre-backs arriving to form a partnership with Kalidou Koulibaly, Serie A’s best centre-back. Fernando Llorente was a useful addition on a free transfer, while the teenage midfielder Eljif Elmas came billed as a blend of Luka Modric and Gennaro Gattuso.
It is too early to assess the impact of any of these players. Lozano has made an encouraging start, marking his debut with a goal off the bench against Juventus. Llorente served Dries Mertens with an assist during Sunday’s win over Sampdoria.
At the back integration has gone a little less smoothly. Koulibaly and Manolas started Napoli’s first two league games together, and the team conceded seven goals. Nikola Maksimovic replaced the new arrival for Sunday’s clean sheet against Sampdoria. Ancelotti insisted afterwards that he plans to use all three as part of a regular rotation policy.
Only the manager can know what selection he has in mind for Tuesday’s visit of Liverpool. It was against the same opponents last year that he pulled one of his more surprising tactical gambits, deploying Maksimovic – a centre-back – on the right of a back four. It seemed bold to deprive his team of a pacier option to counter Sadio Mané, but paid dividends in a deserved 1-0 win.
In truth, as became apparent over the course of the season, Ancelotti’s conception of a back four at Napoli is fluid. His team typically lines up in a classic 4-4-2 but in possession the idea is for at least one of the full-backs to push forward, often both.
At the same time the wingers may move up to occupy space between midfield and attack. At their most aggressive Napoli seek to split this section of the pitch into quarters, with one striker dropping deep and either a central midfielder stepping up or a full-back advancing even further than he normally would so that a winger can move inside. In practice it can look something like a 2-3-4-1.
The idea is to defend on the front foot, retaining possession as much as possible and pressing high with compact lines when it is lost. The risk lies in the transitions. Koulibaly has been uncharacteristically poor so far this season but in theory he and Manolas are well suited to Ancelotti’s approach: both have the pace to prevent teams from breaking with a quick ball over the top.
Even at their best, however, these are not superheroes. If the team overcommits when attacking, as it did for Danilo’s opening goal against Juventus, the spaces can become impossible to cover. That will be even more true against the speed of Mané and Mohamed Salah.
As Ancelotti demonstrated during last season’s encounters, however, he is unafraid to tailor his gameplan to an opponent. The notional 4-4-2 is likely to endure but both the interpretation and the players used against Liverpool may be something we have not seen before.
That goes for the attack as well as the defence. Mertens has started the season in fine form, with three goals in three games, and is now only three shy of matching Maradona’s haul of 115 strikes in seven seasons at the club (Marek Hamsik is the club’s all-time record-holder with 121.) But even Mertens is not guaranteed a place against Liverpool. There is the option to go for a more physical approach with Llorente and Milik.
“Liverpool are the favourites, they are champions of Europe,” said Ancelotti. “They have gained greater confidence and have grown even further since we last met. But Napoli have made steps forward as well.”
He has tended patiently to his crop over the past 12 months. The moment is approaching, Ancelotti hopes, to reap a bountiful harvest.