The accepted narrative is that Antonio Conte will be leaving Chelsea at the end of the season, after the FA Cup final on May 19. Several solid candidates have been rumored as potential replacements; two of them are Massimiliano Allegri, currently of Juventus, and Maurizio Sarri, currently of Napoli. Last night, they played against each other in a crucial match for this season’s Scudetto race. Here’s what we learned and why Napoli’s win is indicative of why Sarri has been the top candidate linked with the Chelsea job.
From 2012 to 2017 there has only been one winner in the Serie A, Turin juggernauts Juventus. The work started by Antonio Conte, when he took over the previously mid-table Bianconeri, continued by Allegri, who replaced Conte four years ago, and with the help of a massive TV revenue disparity (subject to much needed change after this season), Juventus have dominated the competition and have fully recovered from the whole Calciopoli scandal that saw them relegated to them to the second division 12 years ago.
The way Allegri’s Juventus have gone about dominating the Serie A differs from Conte’s better known method. Starting with tactics, courtesy of Cheuk Hei Ho (@Tacticsplatform) writing for our sister blog Black & White & Read All Over about Allegri’s change to a 4-2-3-1 and his overall coaching philosophy (which is definitely worth a read on its own):
“The easiest way to illustrate [Allegri’s] coaching philosophy is to compare him to other coaches. Our beloved Conte belongs to a type like Mourinho, Fabio Capello or Pep Guardiola. These coaches play a distinct type of soccer. Capello’s teams use pressing to force transition. Mourinho’s team plays with extremely quick transition to take advantage of opponent’s error. Guardiola uses positional plays and all eleven offensive football to dictate the game. What is common between these coaches is that they demand discipline. Discipline is necessary because the players have very specific and complicated tasks to perform in different phases of the game. Conte’s football is the same: the pre-determined movements that are carried out repeatedly during the match.”
“Allegri is similar to coaches like Marcello Lippi and Carlo Ancelotti. While they also demand discipline in defense — well, who doesn’t when defending? — their offenses require more read-and-react. Therefore, for these coaches, simplicity is necessary for the team during the offensive phase. Lippi’s and Ancelotti’s teams play with different formations or tactics in different years. The pre-determined movements of players were limited. They always let their most creative players do the magic. The only pre-determined tactic in the offensive phase is to find these players the are where they can do the damage.”
There are also big differences in their transfer philosophy. During Conte’s years at the club, over seven transfer windows — given how he was still at the club in summer 2014 — the biggest fee the club paid was €20 million for the one and only Álvaro Morata on a deal that included a buy-back clause to Real Madrid. They were also serial spenders in terms of volume, going as far as acquiring 20 players in Conte’s first season at the club. (Volume over quality is a theme that’s continue for Conte at Chelsea, too...)
Under Allegri, it’s been different. The new coach took Juve to a Champions League final in his first season at the club, when they spent €34 million in transfers. This jumped to €125 million in the following season, practically half of it going to acquire Palermo’s Paulo Dybala (€40 million) and Porto’s Alex Sandro (€26 million). And in summer 2016, they went on a mission to weaken their direct opponents by purchasing Miralem Pjanic from Roma for a €32 million fee, and Gonzalo Higuaín from Napoli for €90 million in what was the third most expensive transfer of football history at the time.
Conte, who became known for complaining about not having money to ensure a competitive Juventus outside of Italy, may feel slighted for a good reason. But Conte’s cup record also speaks volumes, as he failed to win a single trophy outside of three Serie A league titles in three years at the club while Allegri got his team to lift the Coppa Italia every season since his arrival. Then there is Conte’s abysmal Champions League record: his deepest run in the tournament is the quarterfinals while Allegri took a team whose core was built by Conte to the finals in his debut year. (Conte’s poor record in knockout competitions has continued at Chelsea, too, despite reaching two consecutive FA Cup finals.)
So, Allegri got Juve to spend more in return for consistently great runs in the Champions League, including two finals in the tournament. This season he may have only gotten as far as the quarterfinals, but they Juve almost turned around a 3-0 first leg defeat against Real Madrid and still get one of the fattest checks from UEFA due to TV rights. This however has some at the expense of domestic performance, where they have been less dominant than Conte’s Juve.
Below are the seasons when Conte was manager at Juve, with the gap between the Bianconeri and the rest of the league widening each and every season.
And here are Allegri’s results, where the opposite is taking place.
Roma and Napoli have been leading the way in catching up the rest of the Serie A to the big spenders.
Roma, despite walking a thin line to meet Financial Fair Play demands, have conducted business smartly, making good purchases and collecting hefty profits when moving them on. A prime example is Mohamed Salah acquired from Chelsea for €15m (+5m) and returning to the Premier League two years later for €50m to Liverpool. And even that looks like a great deal for the Reds given Salah’s tremendous goal-return.
Napoli went about their business similar to Roma, but with perhaps even better long-term vision. Despite being known for his brash ways in public, club chairman Aurelio de Laurentiis seems to be a patient man, at least when compared to others in his position. From 2009 to 2013, for example, they had Walter Mazzarri at the helm, who took the footballing world by storm with the 3-5-2 tactics brilliant executed by players such as Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamsik.
After two largely mediocre season with Rafael Benítez, things returned to normal form once Maurizio Sarri, praised throughout the country for his brilliant work at 15th placed Empoli in the 2014-15 season, took the managerial seat.
Sarri has forcused heavily on player development and possession-based football at the San Siro and now, three years after beginning his work at the San Paolo, they are close to toppling Juventus.
The biggest step in their mission was taken yesterday, when Juventus and Napoli met for their second match of the season. In the first encounter, Napoli suffered a 1-0 loss at home, in what was their first defeat in 15 league games after a 12 win, 2 draw start in the competition. Despite that setback, Napoli eventually rose to the top of the table with a run of ten straight wins from December to February. But Juve were even better, going on a 20-match unbeaten run — including that first victory over the Partenopei — with only 3 draws. Eventually Napoli faltered, 4-2 in Rome, putting Juve back on top.
“Not again!”, said all the non-Juventinos.
“Not dead yet!”, answered Napoli.
Playing at home, Juventus’ tactics yesterday were simply appalling. They went into the match with a four-point advantage over Napoli with a win all but guranteeing a seventh consecutive Serie A title. Instead, they were superbly negative and frustrating to watch.
As such, Napoli managed to impose their tactics and consigned Allegri to just his third home defeat of the season (after Lazio and Real Madrid).
Napoli fully deserved Kalidou Koulibaly’s late winner, making the home side pay for Allegri’s complete cowardice.
xG map for Juventus - Napoli. More morality play than football match by the end of it, Juve's staggering, stultifying 6-3-1 negativity beaten by the one thing they couldn't control, a set play. pic.twitter.com/DSwz7EIvl8— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) April 22, 2018
It was also vindication of Sarri’s tactics. One of the main criticisms of his ways is how he sticks to his possession-heavy style even when taking on sides such as Manchester City, oftentimes leading to heart-crushing defeats. But it was his “principle” which took Napoli to their current place, only one point behind Juventus and with a much easier schedule ahead. So the Serie A title is not merely a dream for the Neapolitans.
Last but not least, this was a resounding argument in favour of Sarri-to-Chelsea ramblings. Chelsea still have a shot at getting top four in the Premier League and a FA Cup title to boot, and that could possibly change his fate. But it also feels like his relationship with the club is beyond repair at this point.
It seems inevitable that he will leave the club by the end of the season, despite his public wishes and comments to the contrary. So when the axe falls and Chelsea go in search of a new head coach, Sarri’s name should be high in the shortlist.