Mazzarri The Sequel: How Will Napoli Line Up Under the Returning Manager?

“The marriage was split in two. You can use money to convince a wife to stay with you, but if the wife wants to sleep with another man, she will sleep with another man.” 

As a successful film mogul, you can always count on Aurelio De Laurentiis to spice up any situation with an over-dramatized metaphor. On that particular occasion in the Spring of 2013, the Napoli president compared his manager Walter Mazzarri to a cheating wife, simply because the latter decided to pursue a new career endeavor.

Nevertheless, the San Vicenzo native never took it as a slight… at least not publicly. Perhaps he realized that this was the patron’s unique way of showing his appreciation for the work he conducted over four years in the Southern metropolis.

The First Mazzarri Tenure: An Era of New Heights

Nowadays, Mazzarri’s first spell at the San Paolo Stadium might pale in comparison to Maurizio Sarri’s stint when Napoli were a whisker away from realizing the Scudetto dream, and surely it doesn’t hold a candle for Luciano Spelletti’s historic tenure which culminated with the club’s first league title since Diego Maradona’s golden era.

But back then, Mazzarri and his magical attacking trio of Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani managed to lead Napoli towards new heights: The Partenopei finished twice on the podium of the Serie A standings, reached the Champions League Round of 16, almost eliminating a star-studded Chelsea that went on to win the tournament, and of course, lifted the Coppa Italia trophy.

Therefore, one can understand why an irritated De Laurentiis loathed losing the services of the accomplished manager who decided to join Inter in 2013.

But like every other movie producer, the Napoli president just can’t resist the temptation of a sequel… and neither could Mazzarri.

The Sequel

Sadly for Rudi Garcia, he just wasn’t meant to succeed at Fuorigrotta. While the writing was on the wall from the very beginning, the hierarchy finally decided to wield the axe following the club’s stunning defeat at the hands of Empoli last Sunday.

At first, Igor Tudor emerged as the favorite candidate to replace the solemn Frenchman in the dugout. The former Juventus defender is an up-and-coming tactician who managed to make a name for himself in Italy and France.

But while the Croatian represents the future, Napoli opted for the nostalgic option.

Nevertheless, we ought not to be taken aback but such a decision, after all, second-comings aren’t exactly scarce in football, even if the outcome is disappointing more often than not.

Walter’s Redemption

Back to De Laurentiis’ interesting metaphor, when a couple splits, comparing their subsequent paths becomes almost inevitable. But in this case, it’s simply incomparable.

While Napoli have cemented themselves as an Italian superpower and a force to be reckoned with in the continent, Mazzarri hasn’t truly covered himself in glory in his 10 years away from the city.

His wanders began with a forgettable stint at Inter where he failed to usher in an era of success under the guidance of then-president Erick Thohir. He then endured three underwhelming tenures at Watford, Torino and Cagliari, with the last ending in relegation to Serie B.

Hence, a return to Napoli represents a golden opportunity for the 62-year-old to redeem what began as a promising career that slowly but surely faded into obscurity.

A Tactical Shock

On the eve of Mazzarri’s return to the Maradona Stadium, one might argue that the most shocking element isn’t the unexpected comeback or the choice of an “over-the-hill” manager, but it’s the tactical aspect.

The former Reggina and Sampdoria manager is one of the main pioneers of the three-man defense. He has been an advocate of the 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 formations long before Antonio Conte made them fashionable.

But ironically, all of Mazzarri’s successors – or rather predecessors – have adopted a four-man backline. This prestigious list includes Rafael Benitez, Maurizio Sarri, Carlo Ancelotti, Gennaro Gattuso, Luciano Spalletti and lastly Rudi Garcia.

Therefore, the Napoli squad is set for a major tactical shock, unless the returning boss manager agrees to imitate Spalletti’s 4-3-3 tactics based on De Laurentiis’ orders as some news reports claimed.

How Will Napoli Line Up with Mazzarri

But while the Napoli squad has been carefully built to accommodate managers who play with four defenders at the back, surely Mazzarri will try his utmost best to select a formation suitable to his rather rigid tactical setup.

So how will the Partenopei look like when they take the field in Bergamo against Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta?

While envisioning a new manager’s formation is always a daunting task, this one is too intriguing to neglect.

At the back, the experienced Amir Rrahmani will most likely marshal the three-man defense. The Kosovan has been slightly struggling following the departure of Kim Min-jae, but he remains one of the club’s most reliable options.

To Rrahmani’s left, summer signing Natan should be the favorite ahead of Leo Ostigaard. For his part, Juan Jesus’ experience in the back-three defense could come in handy, but the veteran remains a mere squad option.

But the biggest twist at the back could be Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s new role. The Napoli captain has been the most consistent right-back in Serie A in the past couple of years, but since he has some experience playing at the heart of the defense, Mazzarri could convert him into a right centre-back.

Now certainly such a choice would be highly controversial among the club’s supporters who grew accustomed to watching their beloved skipper darting the wing, but the lack of inspiring options at the back makes it a necessity.

Moreover, playing at the back doesn’t necessarily mean that Di Lorenzo will be prohibited from going forward. He can always take a page out of Toloi’s book or learn Kyle Walker’s craft.

A Few Twists in the Middle

We move on to the middle of the park, where André-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Stanislav Lobotka remain the undisputed options for the double-pivot roles. The Cameroonian’s physical strength and impressive stamina are the perfect foil for the Slovakian’s formidable play-making skills.

Based on his current form, Matteo Politano is simply undroppable. Yet, the Italian might have to cope with a slightly deeper role. In other words, Mazzarri could transform the Napoli star into a right wingback.

Curiously, the Italian had to leave Inter and join Napoli because Conte felt he was ill-suited for his 3-5-2 formation. However, Mazzarri can’t afford to oust the club’s most in-form player.

On the opposite flank, Mario Rui is beginning to slow, while Mathias Olivera is yet to prove himself worthy of a regular spot. Nevertheless, the team needs a left wingback with defensive attributes to complement Politano, so Mazzarri may have to rotate between the two as it’s been the case since the start of the season.

Who Will Be the New Mazzarri Trio?

As we mentioned above, Mazzarri was able to count on the fabulous attacking trio of Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik during his first stint.

Naturally, the manager will attempt to recreate a new golden trident, and curiously, he might have three players with somewhat similar characteristics.

First, we begin with Piotr Zielinski who’s arguably the perfect candidate to emulate Hamsik’s role as a link between the midfield and the attack.

The Pole featured as a box-to-box midfielder under the guidance of Spalletti, but he might be more suited to the role of attacking midfielder where he can play further up the field, pick up the strikers with his elegant through balls and try his luck from the edge of the box.

Furthermore, the versatile Eljif Elmas could finally find himself a haven in this formation after being shifted all over the field since landing in Naples.

As for Lavezzi, his natural successor is obviously Khvicha Kvaratskhelia who also attacks from the left flank before inflicting damage with his outrageous dribbling and astonishing skill set.

The Argentine remains a beloved club icon in the Southern city, but the Georgian sensation has already eluded him in terms of fame and accolades, boasting a Scudetto title and a Serie A MVP Award to his name.

Finally, Victor Osimhen inherited Cavani’s goal-scoring shoes long before the arrival of Mazzarri and regardless of the team’s tactical setup. Like Kvara, the Nigerian has also exceeded the accomplishments of his predecessor, cementing himself as an iconic figure in the Campanian capital.

Giovanni Simeone is the natural backup for the centre-forward role, while Giacomo Raspadori’s versatility renders him an option for all three attacking roles, but we can expect him to continue to feature as a striker until Osimhen regains his optimal physical condition.

Napoli Potential XI (3-4-2-1): Meret; Di Lorenzo, Rrahmani, Natan; Politano, Zambo-Anguissa, Lobotka, Mario Rui (Olivera); Zielinski, Kvaratskhelia; Osimhen

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