Watching last night’s entertaining but low-quality game between Milan and Napoli, one couldn’t help but notice each side had what the other lacked.
It’s not exactly news to anyone that even casually follows Serie A that Milan and Napoli went into this match under their own personal clouds of self-destruction. Their respective issues are well known and won’t be repeated again here, but what was striking was the difference in effort.
Stefano Pioli has, in his short time on the Milan bench, instilled some sort of desire in the players to improve their shambolic situation. However, it’s clear for all to see that the Rossoneri simply lack quality players in every area of the pitch. With the possible exception of Gigio Donnarumma in goal, Milan do not possess a player that would get into the starting XI of either Juventus or Inter.
Contrast this to Napoli, and it tells a different story. They have quality, bags of it in fact, but last night’s showing made it evident that they simply lack the drive their opponents displayed. Napoli were nothing short of dire: no conviction, little spark, creatively void, completely uninspiring.
So, a year and half into the Carlo Ancelotti project at Napoli, what are the defining characteristics of this side? What stands out as a major improvement that you can point to and say that it was the work of Ancelotti? What, in essence, are Napoli? What have they become?
It’s difficult to decipher what progress Ancelotti has made. Of course, they were never going to hit the aesthetically pleasing peaks of the Maurizio Sarri era (even Sarri himself hasn’t reached the same heights with first Chelsea and so far at Juve), but after 18 months, there should be some sign of evolution, something that points towards this side having Ancelotti’s fingerprints over it.
Ancelotti, arguably for the first time since his Parma days when he was a strict disciple of Arrigo Sacchi, is utilising a flat 4-4-2. But the majority of the players, most of whom are still pining for Sarri’s 4-3-3, don’t seem comfortable with the system, most of all Lorenzo Insigne, who doesn’t play with the same Neapolitan swagger as a left midfielder or as a forward in a front two. He’s looked completely lost during games, the enjoyment of playing for his local club seemingly all but sucked out of him.
The Napoli players have lauded Ancelotti in the past for implementing more of a rotation system than was used under Sarri, with players like Nikola Maksimovic and Sebastiano Luperto getting considerably more playing time, and he has stayed true to that. Yet by the same token, Ancelotti recently stated that Napoli lack consistency. It isn’t exactly rocket science that consistency comes with usually picking the same XI.
It’s been eight years since Napoli have had so few points on the board at this stage of the season, the days of Salvatore Aronica and Paolo Cannavaro in the Walter Mazzarri era. They haven’t won for six games in all competitions, again another record that hasn’t been seen since Mazzarri patrolled the touchline at the San Paolo.
Ancelotti has so far failed to give Napoli a tactical identity, they now score less than under Sarri, but they also concede more, and have no discernible style of play.
This lends itself to the theory that over the last decade Ancelotti has become more of a facilitator of great players, rather than tactically evolving his teams. It’s arguable that he hasn’t done anything exceptional, in a tactical sense, since the early years of his Milan reign, bar several standout games. His stagnation as a coach is doing the players no favours; they’ve gone from being micromanaged to under-coached in the space of two years.
In their current predicament, it’s difficult to see Ancelotti remaining at the club past the end of this season. His lethargy matching that of many of his players, for whom it seems their time at the club has come to an end. A cycle has well and truly ended.
Any hopes of a Scudetto challenge have long since faded. The objective for Ancelotti is to secure a place in the top four, and perhaps go on a decent Champions League run. But what was once seen as a coup in signing the three-time Champions League winning coach hasn’t worked out as everyone thought it would. The euphoria has long since dissipated.