Why Napoli are putting their faith in Mauricio Sarri and his proven formula in their quest to beat Juventus to the Serie A crown

“The longest training camp in my life has just ended and we’re happy with the work we've done” wrote Dries Mertens on Instagram this week, the Belgian international reflecting on Napoli’s pre-season retreat in Northern Italy. Given an intense and gruelling three-week workout in Val di Sole by Maurizio Sarri, the coach was determined to ensure his squad was ideally prepared for the start to the 2017/18 campaign.

By virtue of finishing third last term, the Partenopei must take part in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League, but high profile players like Lorenzo Insigne, Arkadiusz Milik and Mertens – who were all entitled to a longer break after their summer international commitments – cut short their holidays in order to return early. 

If that is testament to their dedication to the club, it also reflects the sense of solidarity that Sarri has instilled within them as a unit, their camaraderie showcased in the countless social media posts of the players relaxing in between their intense training sessions. Cooling aching muscles in the mountain streams, Napoli’s most recognisable stars shared jokes and sang songs, playing practical jokes on one another and seemingly having a great time. “Milan, Inter, Juventus and Roma moved well on the market, but our strength at Napoli is in the group, as we are so united,” Brazilian midfielder Allan told Radio Kiss Kiss. “We really care about each other and have great fun. That could be our secret weapon.”

As well as offering some behind-the-scenes insight, those words highlight a recognition of the serious challenge Napoli face in order to maintain their position in the upper echelons of Serie A. Already trailing six-time champions Juventus, they have looked on as the other clubs he mentioned have already spent millions of Euros to strengthen their squads, Italy’s top sides looking set to contest the top four positions which from next season will automatically ensure Champions League qualification.

Meanwhile, Napoli have almost stood still. Their only arrivals thus far have been promising 20-year-old Adam Ounas of Bordeaux and Roma’s backup left-back Mário Rui, who worked with Sarri at former club Empoli. That familiarity will be essential if Napoli are to succeed, with the coach notoriously slow to integrate new players, regularly naming the same starting XI week-to-week, rather than rotating his squad.

“In my opinion there’s nothing missing in the team, the quality of Napoli’s players is of the highest standard, so it’s difficult to buy someone else,” club President Aurelio De Laurentiis told the press earlier this month. “If we want to aim for the title, we have to be ready from the start and our biggest investment is on Maurizio Sarri, he has proven himself to be world class in his system of play.”

Indeed, while Allan spoke of their togetherness, in truth it is the scheming of the gruff Tuscan boss that is truly the biggest weapon Napoli have. After all, it wasn’t a new signing that filled the void left behind when Gonzalo Higuain joined Juventus twelve months ago, it was Mertens. Previously an average-looking winger who struggled to displace either Jose Callejon or Insigne, the Belgian was fielded as an out-and-out striker by Sarri, responding in incredible fashion as he bagged as many goals last season (34) as he had in his first three years at the club combined.

It was a moment of genius from a coach who has his team playing the most beautiful football in Italy, a study in constant motion and seamless interplay. After watching even the briefest of highlights, such as the video shown above, it is no surprise to learn that Napoli led all Serie A teams in terms of possession (59%), pass completion (87.2) and number of passes per 90 minutes (680.9). That latter figure in particular stands out, some 135 attempts more than any other side in the division and bettered only by Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich (709.1) across Europe’s top five leagues.

Compact, dominating the ball, pressing opponents and lethal in attack, Napoli also possess a deep squad that can survive an injury layoff for perhaps any player besides captain Marek Hamšík. The Slovakian is unquestionably the talisman of the team, driving them forward from midfield and weighing in with vital goals or assists in the biggest matches.

He created more chances last term than all but two players in Serie A, reaching double figures in assists during 2015/16 to mark the fourth time in five seasons that he has done so. Adding 15 goals in all competitions, Hamšík now incredibly just two strikes behind Diego Maradona’s club record of 115. 

Worshipped by the people of Naples just as the Argentinian legend once was, the club’s vociferous and passionate fanbase would enjoy nothing more than seeing him lift the Scudetto above that famous mohawked head. 

While their rivals are busy splashing the cash, Napoli have doubled down on Sarri’s vision and the continuity of a group who seem to truly enjoy playing together. Will it ever be enough? Time to find out.