The 2018/19 Napoli campaign, the first with Carlo Ancelotti at the helm, began with a 4-2-3-1 formation experiment that failed miserably in exhibition matches prior to the season’s commencement. The season would end in similar fashion as Napoli, having wrapped up 2nd place in the Serie A table and with nothing to play for, would once again revisit the 4-2-3-1 experiment against Bologna. The results were less than stellar. With the right and left backs forced wide and the wingers caught up field, half spaces were opened and Piotr Zieliński and Fabián Ruiz’ lack of defensive quality was exposed and this time there was no Kalidou Koulibaly standing tall on the back line to bail them out.
It’s quite clear that Ancelotti wishes to organize his squad into a 4-2-3-1 that is both balanced and dynamic but was forced to settle for the safer 4-4-2 this past season due to a lack of quality at the FB positions and a proper regista. With both Carlo Ancelotti and Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis stating their desire to have Ancelotti at Napoli for many years to come, the question is raised, how does this squad that once thrived under Sarri’s quick pass, up tempo 4-3-3 that was then cocooned into a 4-4-2 by Ancelotti, undergo metamorphosis, emerge, and take flight into a 4-2-3-1.
The midfield is the heartbeat, the metronome if you will, that sets the pace and flow of the game. Teams fortunate enough to have a commanding field general in their midfield will always find themselves within reach of a win. Napoli were touted as having the most talented midfield early in the season. The best of which, Allan, was an animal, prowling the field and forcibly removing the ball from his opponents grasp. Rumors are swirling that he may now be on his way to Paris Saint-Germain and if that comes to fruition, Napoli will be one step further from making a transition to a 4-2-3-1.
With all the talent Ancelotti has at his disposal to deploy in the midfield, none of the players are really a fit for the ‘2’ in the 4-2-3-1. While there is no single best way to field the pairing option for the ‘2’, there are a few tried and true combinations. The first is the example of Gennaro Gattuso and Andre Pirlo. While they may have been in more of a Diamond 4-4-2, the concept is still sound and transitions to the 4-2-3-1. Gattuso was the ball winner who quickly distributed it to the regista Pirlo, who in turn, set the offense in motion. Allan fits the Gattuso mold but the regista quality is absent from this Napoli squad. Marek Hamšík was a failed regista experiment and Amadou Diawara could potentially develop into this role successfully but if Allan does leave for PSG as it is believed, then Napoli have neither.
The dual #6 route would keep teams guessing as to which player is setting the tempo and organizing the offense. It seemed Ancelotti was experimenting this concept with Zieliński and Fabián against Bologna. The problem is that both Zieliński and Fabián want to be the Central Attacking Midfielder (CAM) and the ‘2’ in the 4-2-3-1 requires the player to be more defensively minded. Fabián, touted as the next Sergio Busquets, may be a better fit to this role than Zieliński, but he needs to improve his tactical intelligence and interpretation of space to make up for his lack of physicality. If Allan does move on, then Diawara and Fabián may be the better pairing but neither is a convincing field general. To make the situation even more murky, players such as Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne, and transfer target James Rodríguez are all suited for that central attacking role.
Potential issues with Insigne as captain and his role at the club aside, if we disregard the rumors and plan ahead with the squad on hand, the best solution with a 4-2-3-1 may be to relocate Insigne back to the left wing. José Callejón will continue to take up his usual residence on the right and the attack will be spearheaded by Arkadiusz Milik. If we then take the middle position of the ‘3’ and look at it as the spearhead of the midfield, then it becomes clear that there is a role here for Zieliński or Fabián. I would choose Zieliński and deploy Fabián along side Allan as the back midfield duo. What about Mertens you might ask? He can replace Milik as the striker or Zieliński as the CAM and keep everyone rested and fresh. With all the competition in Serie A and Europe, there are more than enough minutes to go around to keep everyone happy.
While fans love the sexy transfer of a new shiny striker or offensive play-maker, Napoli desperately need quality defensive minded players if they are to change into a more competitive 4-2-3-1. Carlo Ancelotti certainly has some tough decisions ahead that may get more complex with the summer transfer market but Napoli are poised to take advantage of having had a full year under Ancelotti, while many of Serie A’s other top teams are looking for a new manager to begin their process anew.
By Eric Passariello