This week in the Champions League we saw the two most innovative and entertaining coaches in world football, Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri, go toe to toe as Manchester City beat Napoli 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium.
It was a truly beautiful spectacle between two men who play the game the way purists want it to be played. The mutual respect between Guardiola and Sarri was palpable both before and after the game. Pep described Napoli as probably the best side he had faced in his career, while Sarri hailed the Catalan as the No.1 coach in the world.
Certainly, few would disagree with the latter comment. Pep revolutionised the sport with Barcelona, creating a beautiful tiki-taka brand of football in leading Lionel Messi and Co. to record-breaking success. He is now threatening to do the same with Manchester City.
But in Sarri, the Catalan has a disciple who is proving to be every bit as inventive.
On the surface, Sarri does not fit the profile of a footballing pioneer. An unremarkable and weathered-looking man, he is a chain-smoker, dons tracksuits instead of suits and sips espressos while enjoying a puff during training.
Serie A News (@TransfersCalcio) July 19, 2015
In many ways, he is old fashioned. He has a fiery personality and barks instructions at his players on the touchline. A tough task-master, his screams can often be clearly heard from as far as the car park at Napoli’s training ground at Castel Volturno.
Sarri’s playing career progressed no further than amateur level and he worked as a banker until the age of 40. He coached 16 teams through Italy’s lower divisions until he finally got his big break in Serie A with Empoli in his mid-50s.
But as Arrigo Sacchi - a man with whom Sarri has been repeatedly compared - once famously told journalists when asked how he could manage AC Milan having never played professionally: “A jockey doesn’t have to have been born a horse.”
So forward-thinking is Sarri that he became the first ever coach to use drones that hover above the training pitch in order to study the movements of his players - a method since copied by multiple other teams. Sarri mostly deploys drones to work on the defensive line of his back four. One video filmed on a drone camera showed 27 different drills designed to ensure the Napoli defence always move as a unit.
Since taking over in the summer of 2015, Sarri’s Napoli have played spell-binding football that has left spectators and neutrals drooling. “The best in Europe,” Man City midfielder Fernandinho enthused. The Azzurri have plundered 200 goals in 84 Serie A games during Sarri's tenure - by contrast, six-year reigning champions Juventus have scored 173 goals during that time.
Despite thus far failing to win a trophy, many experts feel that this could be the season that Napoli end Juve’s stranglehold on the Scudetto. Ahead of this weekend’s big top-of-the-table clash with Inter, Napoli have won eight games out of eight - with the best attack and defence in the division.
“If Napoli don’t have too many injuries and can rotate a little bit, the way they play they can win the league this season,” Guardiola told Goal after his side’s slender win on Tuesday. “We played one of the best sides I have faced in my career, probably the best.”
Sarri sets up his team in a 4-3-3 formation and demands that they dominate possession, averaging over 60 per cent of the ball. Like Guardiola, Sarri insists they move the ball quickly with short one-touch passes and triangles - with as little emphasis as possible on crossing and dribbling.
Also like Guardiola, Sarri’s players interchange positions seamlessly. Centre-backs Koulibaly and Raul Albiol regularly split wide in possession, allowing the full-backs Faouzi Ghoulam and Elseid Hysaj to push up to form what is more akin to a 2-5-3 system. Insigne will often move in-field to gift Ghoulam the space to virtually play as a left winger.
Another fascinating player to watch tactically is Jorginho. Sitting at the base of the midfield, every move goes through the Brazilian-born pass-master, who was rested versus City. He is to Sarri what Xavi was to Guardiola at Barcelona.
Since Opta started collecting data in Serie A in 2004, Jorginho holds all nine of the top spots for most touches in any match. He also occupies nine of the top 10 for most successful passes played in a match.
Under Sarri, Jorginho has become an expert at finding space for himself. When Napoli begin a move from the back, he tends to position himself just behind the opposition forward when calling for the ball. Like a cyclist in the blind spot of a car driver, Jorginho will rarely be noticed until it is too late.
This will usually force one of the opposition midfielders to push up and close him down, thus creating a hole in front of the Napoli man for his team-mates to occupy. Should the forward instead mark Jorginho during the build-up, then this will allow Koulibaly or Albiol to bring the ball out of defence unopposed - thus effectively killing the chance of a high press.
This is just a microcosm of the way Sarri’s team use space to dominate possession and why it is so difficult to take the ball off them.
Sarri has also been responsible for turning Dries Mertens into a world-class striker. Following a serious injury to Arkadiusz Milik a year ago, Sarri came up with the seemingly crazy idea of deploying a 29-year-old, 5ft 5in winger as a ‘false 9’. Mertens has since been unstoppable - scoring 33 goals in his next 37 league games, as well as five in 12 Champions League matches.
“Sarri really is a genius; he sees things others don’t see,” Koulibaly told Il Messaggero. “He helps you to think as a team and not as an individual.”
And Napoli certainly play as a team. Sarri’s first XI, which cost only €74 million to construct, is virtually the same one that struggled to fifth position in Benitez’s last season in Campania in 2014-15.
The way they press aggressively high up the pitch is reminiscent of not only Guardiola’s teams, but also Sacchi’s all-conquering Milan side which won back-to-back European Cups in 1989 and 1990. Just like Franco Baresi and Co., they smother the opposition and make it very difficult for them to escape from their own half.
Asked by Goal whether Sarri can be considered a successor to Sacchi, the Milan legend was glowing in his praise: “[Sarri] tries to interpret football in a positive manner, to be a protagonist and not to follow others.
“This lifts the value of the players and their self-confidence, and also the game. It produces spectacular football.”
And this spectacular football is something that Sarri himself prides himself on. He is a true believer in playing football the right way and is bitterly opposed to what he deems to be negative anti-football deployed by the likes of Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone.
“Cholismo? If I saw my team defending and counter-attacking after 30 minutes I would get up and return to the bank because I would not be having fun,” Sarri sniped after Simeone’s Atletico Madrid had grinded their way past Bayern Munich in the 2016 Champions League semi-finals.
Were he to return to the bank, football would be the big loser. Indeed, if Sarri does win Napoli their first Scudetto since the era of Diego Maradona, it will be a glorious day not just for Neapolitans but for all footballing purists - none more so than the purest of them all in Pep Guardiola.
With additional reporting from Sergio Chesi, Goal's Napoli correspondent