It’s been a long old summer for Maurizio Sarri. After finding out via a news bulletin that Napoli were appointing Carlo Ancelotti and he would no longer be charge of the team but remain under contract, his future has been in a state of suspended animation.
Sarri did what he customary does at this time of year. He returned home to Tuscany. He watched some non-league football, taking in Sambenedettese’s game against Cosenza. Probably went back and re-read some of the Charles Bukowski and John Fante novels he loves. And was made an honorary citizen of Acquaviva Picena.
The undoubted highlight though was a dinner date at the Perla Verde restaurant with Pep Guardiola and Arrigo Sacchi in Milano Marittima shortly after the opening game of the World Cup 2018. Acts of escapism to distract Sarri from the complicated exfil operations going on in tandem to get him out of Napoli and Antonio Conte out of Chelsea without it costing a fortune.
A heavy smoker at the best of times – Dries Mertens jokes Sarri lights up five packs a day – one imagines the 59-year-old’s nicotine intake has been higher than usual over the course of a saga that has featured so many twists and turns. With Conte unwilling to resign and leave a huge stack of money on the table, and the vacancies at PSG, Real Madrid and Bayern all filled, Chelsea found themselves engaged on two fronts. Over in Italy, Napoli looked at Sarri’s situation as no different to having a player on their books who has lost his place in the team to another. Whether he’s on the bench or not, he still has value.
The buy-out clause in his contract, which expired last month fixed a price for him. Since then it has been up for negotiation and Napoli owner Aurelio de Laurentiis is no pushover. Put his name into Google Translate and it comes back in English as Daniel Levy. It’s enough to recall Kalidou Koulibaly’s anecdote about him demanding Genk knock more money off their asking price when he discovered the Senegal international was 10cm shorter than it said on the internet.
Thankfully, the wait is now finally over and about time too. Pre-season has already begun and the start of the Premier League is less than a month away. For a coach with as sophisticated a system as Sarri and one so radically different in style and emphasis to that of his predecessor, it’s far from ideal to arrive this late. Nor does it help that several of Chelsea’s key players are either still involved at the World Cup or have only recently gone on shortened summer breaks. At least it seems Chelsea are inclined to bring in some plug-in and play Sarri disciples, most notably Jorginho, which will allow for an acceleration in making this team play as he would like.
Chelsea fans have had to be more patient than most in recent summers and they’ll need more of the same virtue now Sarri is here. While defending his treatment of the Tuscan this off-season, which he insists was not vindictive, De Laurentiis reflected on the early days of them working together.
Napoli came out of the blocks slow in Sarri’s first season. They lost to Sassuolo on opening the day and won only one of their first five games. De Laurentiis recalls: “[Sarri] said: ‘President, let me do it my way. We’ll maybe lose the first seven games but then the results will start to come, you’ll see’.” But De Laurentiis was having none of it. “I told him I’d sack him after three defeats.”
It never came to that. Winter champions twice in his three years at the San Paolo no one has come closer to ending Napoli’s 28-year title drought than Sarri not to mention Juventus’ seven-year grip on the Scudetto. He had a team with the fifth highest wage bill punching way above its weight, establishing new club records one year and setting new personal bests the next. Last season Napoli became only the fourth team to break the 90-point barrier and the first not to win the league having done so.
It was achieved not with spending but through coaching. Three years after Rafa Benitez left for Real Madrid, the team is more or less the same, which will no doubt have appealed to this more prudent iteration of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea. The only new recruit who turned into a first team regular under Sarri was Elseid Hysaj, the Albania international full-back who he brought with him from Empoli. Aside from Raul Albiol, Jose Callejon and Gonzalo Higuain, players Benitez attracted from Real Madrid and paid for with the money PSG paid for Edinson Cavani, the rest were signed from Udinese, Brescia, Verona and Bologna.
Sarri coached them into a new dimension. Higuain didn’t just break the 20-goal ceiling that had eluded him under Benitez in Serie A, he scored 36 in one season, breaking a record that had stood since 1950. When he left and Arkadiusz Milik got injured, Sarri reinvented Dries Mertens into a prolific centre-forward and made you wonder why nobody else had tried that. Like Mertens, who Benitez never saw as more than an impact sub, Jorginho was brought in from the margins and made the brain of this team.
As disappointed as De Laurentiis was with Sarri’s Hamletic musings about the club’s ability to prevent the team from breaking up and whether or not he should stay on and see out the rest of his contract, there’s no denying the Tuscan added a colossal amount of value to this group of players. He made Juventus think spending €90m to buy Higuain out of his contract wasn’t ludicrous and Chelsea and Man City draw the conclusion €50m is not too high a price to bid for Jorginho.
In terms of making returns on Napoli’s investments, Sarri evidently hasn’t lost the touch he showed as a foreign currency trader working for the Banca Toscana until taking a leap of faith and deciding to dedicate himself full-time to coaching in 2001. That and the style with which his sides play has left Sarri in as much demand as his players.
Although Napoli didn’t win anything in the three years he was in charge, Sarri expressed the hope they would be remembered like the great Holland side of the `70s; luminaries whose contribution to the game eclipsed defeats in back-to-back World Cup finals.
Deflecting the pressure that comes with a title challenge, Sarri said Napoli’s objective was always “beauty.” When he was named Italy’s Coach of the Year in 2017 the judging panel acknowledged as much with a literary reference they thought the bookish Sarri would no doubt appreciate. “Dostoevsky wrote: ‘Beauty will save the world’. Who knows if, as well-read a man and great a coach as Sarri was inspired by this quote over the course of a career which, from provincial pitches to those of the Champions League, has always had good football as its common denominator.”
It has won admirers in high places. The reason Guardiola and Sacchi wished to have dinner with Sarri is simple; in him they see a kindred spirit. Sacchi tells a story about watching Napoli play Cagliari when the phone rang. It was Guardiola. “He said ‘How good are Napoli? What a show they’re putting on’.” Students of the game flocked to watch them. Eddie Howe was an early adopter, taking advantage of the open training sessions Sarri used to put on at Empoli, building a relationship which led to a friendly with Bournemouth this year.
“Going to [Napoli’s training ground] Castelvolturno is like going to Palo Alto,” Gianluca Vialli explained. “There’s innovation, creativity.” And it’s now relocating to Cobham.
As he approaches his 60th birthday, Sarri’s ideas have won the recognition they deserve. It has taken a long time to get this deal done. Even longer for the world to wake up to Sarri. Until 2014 he had never coached in the top flight, an oversight which prompted the Italian football community to ask itself how it had managed to miss one of the brightest minds of a generation when he was under their noses all along.
Some argue Sarri now has to start winning things. Anything less has not been enough under Abramovich. Chelsea need to be realistic, and are betting on Sarri to revolutionise the Premier League in the same way Conte did two years ago. Only by bringing something new can Chelsea hope to overhaul and out-smart Guardiola’s better-resourced City. “Storm the palace” was Sarri’s rallying cry in his final months at Napoli. The coup failed. But the romance of the revolution he preached in Naples endures. Maybe at Chelsea it’ll go all the way.