The transformation of Dries Mertens from the inconsistent winger to a goal scoring machine has Maurizio Sarri’s stamp all over it.
Napoli’s manager has built his extraordinary career on making players better and seeing what others do not see.
In a time when money dominates, when transfer fees are scarcely believable, when clubs prefer the transfer market to player development, Sarri stands apart.
Its worth remembering that this is only the 58-year old’s fourth season in Serie A. From obscurity to manager of the club he has supported from childhood, Sarri’s is a modern day football fairy tale.
A banker and part-time manager in the Tuscan amateur leagues at the turn of the century, it wasn’t until he was in his forties that he decided take up coaching full time.
A decade of managing in the lower tiers of the Italian game culminated Sarri‘s big breakthrough, guiding little Empoli into Serie A in 2013/14 at the ripe old age of 55.
Most expected the lowest paid manager with the smallest budget in the league to return quickly from whence he came, but Sarri had different ideas.
Empoli comfortably avoided the drop – notably with a positive style that belied their lack of resources.
Aurelio De Laurentiis, Napoli’s owner, on the lookout for a replacement for the departing Rafa Benitez and for a coach who was not reliant on the high-end of the transfer market for solutions shocked the Italian game by offering Sarri the job.
Just over two years on, De Laurentiis must take massive credit for the appointment of a manager who Fabio Capello feels “is waking football up” and who Pep Guardiola believes has one of the three best footballing teams in Europe.
The reinvention of Mertens speaks to the coaching qualities De Laurentiis saw in Sarri.
The Belgian joined Napoli as a winger in 2013 for just €9.5 million. And while he always looked a talented player, there was little to suggest he could produce the kind of end product we’ve seen in the last year.
His first three seasons yielded a decent 22 league goals in 95 Serie A games.
But late last year, after the sale of Gonzalo Higuain, a season-ending injury to his replacement Arkadiusz Milik and the failure of Manolo Gabbiadini to grasp his tactics, Sarri moved Mertens into a more central striking role.
The results have been stunning, with the 28-year-old scoring 35 goals in his last 36 Serie A games!
It’s not the first time Sarri’s coaching nous has paid dividends at the club.
On his arrival, his decision to switch from Benitez’s 4-2-3-1 to a more fluid 4-3-3 had a liberating effect on Marek Hamsik.
And his reinstatement of forgotten man Jorginho as regista also proved another masterstroke.
The Partenopei’s game is all about possession and verticality in attack, a high line and a high press when hunting the ball.
From the back, tight inter-passing between centre halves Kalidou Koulibaly and Raul Albiol and the deep-lying Jorginho is designed to draw on the opposition forwards and midfield players, opening passing lanes to Allan and Hamsik in midfield and Faouzi Ghoulam and Elseid Hysaj out wide.
The quick vertical passing Sarri demands of his players is key to Napoli’s success.
Their possession stats are more than a match for anyone’s in Europe, but it’s their incisive, rapier like passing into the forward three of Callejon, Insigne and Mertens that opponents struggle to cope with.
Their ability to keep the ball in tight spaces, create overloads between the lines, time their runs and finish makes Napoli such a dangerous and delightful attacking force.
The three frontmen, who cost the club a paltry €19 million, scored 58 league goals between them last term.
They’ve already notched another 13 in Napoli’s blinding 100% start to this league season.
Saturday night’s victory away to last season’s runners up Roma made it eight from eight, leaving them top of Serie A and five points clear of champions Juventus.
Next up is a mouth-watering trip to Manchester City on Tuesday night that will provide perhaps the most serious test of Napoli’s qualities thus far.
A fascinating clash between two of the most talented coaches in the game, two of the most exciting sides in Europe and between two conflicting financial philosophies.