Stefano Pioli: Napoli’s next coach?

by Jack Sargeant

Under Walter Mazzarri, Napoli have undergone an extraordinary transformation. From not much more than occasional challengers for a European spot, the 51-year-old coach has turned the Neapolitans into contenders on a domestic and European stage, winning their first Coppa Italia since 1987 and leading them to their highest league finish since they won their last Scudetto in 1989–90.

Thanks to transfer guru Riccardo Bigon’s excellent eye for talent and Mazzarri’s 3-4-2-1 which fitted the attacking personnel perfectly – as well as inadvertently revolutionising the set-up of Serie A sides over the last couple of seasons – the Tuscan tactician has overseen some of the best football Italy has seen over the last decade.

But, their recent league game against Bologna has compounded the feeling that Mazzarri’s time may soon be up. In case you missed it, Napoli conceded twice in the last five minutes, throwing away a 2-1 lead to lose 3-2. One defeat is clearly no reason for the coach to leave, no matter the manner in which the game was lost. In fact, had Edinson Cavani converted his chances, it would have been a comfortable Partenopei victory.

However, the loss highlighted many grievances which Mazzarri has failed to address. While his formation has provided some exquisite counter-attacking football, his inability or unwillingness to adapt and adjust has flown in the face of his claim to be an “innovator.” The big clubs have found out how to beat Napoli, and it is telling that they  haven’t won any away to any side currently in the top five over the last five years.

The defensive lynchpins throughout Mazzarri’s tenure – Paolo Cannavaro and Hugo Capagnaro – are erratic and prone to errors, and whilst the defensive trio has been strengthened this season with the signing of Alessandro Gamberini, the costly error which allowed Daniele Portanova to head home Bologna’s winner tore down the paper covering the cracks.

Nevertheless, for all of these flaws, Mazzarri has still done an outstanding job at the San Paolo, and is still well-liked. The coach has become something of an adopted Neapolitan, with his fiery approach to touchline coaching.  Therefore, it is easy to see talk of his departure as hyperbolic and sensationalist.

But, it is actually Mazzarri himself who seems to have reached the conclusion that his days at the club are numbered. His contract expires at the end of the season, and amidst heart scares and a quote from October in which the tactician mentioned that he hadn’t “had a break in 12 years and there’s a lot of stress,” it doesn’t take much to reach the conclusion he could soon be out of the door.

Attention therefore, turns to a potential successor. Coincidentally, the man who could be a perfect fit at the San Paolo is actually the coach who masterminded Bologna’s dramatic victory in Naples in round 17 – Stefano Pioli. The Parma native has a solid if unspectacular CV, and is yet to really get the chance to show his coaching capabilities on a grand scale. In his biggest post yet – at Palermo – he was sacked before taking charge of a Serie A game, though that says more about Palermo’s president Maurizio Zamparini than Pioli.

Impressing in the past in a rapid rise up the ranks, Pioli’s sacking at Palermo was only the second time he was relieved of his duties since starting his career at the Bologna youth team in 1999. Considering that there’s decent grounds for a claim of unfair dismissal from the Renzo Barbera, that’s a highly impressive record. Winning a championship with Bologna’s Allievi Nazionali team, he impressed in Serie B before taking charge at his hometown club Parma in his first top flight job in Serie A in 2006.

Dropping back down into the second tier for three years, he found himself back in Serie A at Chievo in 2010, and he has remained in the top division ever since. The main reason the ex-Juventus defender could be a success at Napoli, is that, in many ways, he is the antithesis to Mazzarri. Fastidious in his tactical preparation and with a certain defence-first approach, Pioli’s main focus is organisation. It is telling that only sides in the top five have conceded fewer goals than Pioli’s Bologna. His teams are notoriously disciplined, but he combines this with an impressive tactical versatility.

Favouring a 4-2-3-1 at Parma, a 4-3-3 at Sassuolo, a 4-3-1-2 at Chievo and generally a 3-4-2-1 at Bologna, he is very much a pragmatist. Modifying the Christmas tree shape he has preferred this season to a 4-2-3-1 for the victory at the San Paolo, his adaptability is second to none. Flexibility of this degree is rarely seen in Italian football, with coaches tending to be set in their ways. Mazzarri is, of course, one such coach.

In actual fact, it is Pioli, more than Mazzarri, who is the innovator, constantly looking to adapt and evolve according to the strengths of his side and the upcoming opposition. With Mazzarri’s cycle coming to an end, change is needed in Naples. And, while Stefano Pioli may be an unlikely choice, all evidence suggests he may well be the safest risk they could take.

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