Napoli’s ‘Mr 33’ takes roundabout route to the top
Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City are the only clubs Pep Guardiola has coached during his illustrious managerial career.
Napoli’s Maurizio Sarri, his opposite number in Tuesday’s Champions League match against City, has taken a more roundabout route to the top with Sangiovannese, Arezzo, Avellino, Perugia, Grosseto, Alessandria and Sorrento among clubs on his CV.
Sarri, arguably the most entertaining team in Serie A, never played football professionally and did not make his touchline debut in Italy’s top flight until the age of 55 after winning promotion with Empoli in 2014.
Known as “Mr 33”, because he reputedly thought up 33 different plans for set pieces at Empoli, Sarri quickly innovated at Napoli by using a drone to film training sessions from above.
In just over two seasons, he has swept away the inconsistency which marked predecessor Rafael Benitez’s spell at the club and brought out the best in players such as midfielders Marek Hamsik and Jorginho, who had struggled for form under the Spaniard.
Argentina forward Gonzalo Higuain was another who flourished under Sarri, scoring a Serie A record of 36 goals in the 2015-16 season before being lured to Juventus.
“Sarri has been like a father,“ Higuain said at the time. “He emphasises my weak points; he immediately told me what he thought of me, both the good and the bad.
“But he has shown me all his faith. I appreciate the fact that he is an honest man who likes to see us play good football.”
Napoli finished second in Sarri’s first season in charge, in 2015-16, and could have won the title last season had it not been for a poor run of results just before Christmas. They finished third boasting the best scoring record with 94 goals.
Napoli have made a flying start this season, winning their first eight league games and scoring 26 goals in the process, suggesting they could end Juventus’ run of six successive titles.
Sarri began coaching amateur teams in the 1990s, combining his hobby with a banking career that took him to the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg.
But, after leading Sansovino to the fourth tier at the start of the millennium, he decided it was time to make the leap.
“I understood that if I dedicated myself solely to coaching, I could get much better at it,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but my family supported me.”
He has since worked his way up from the lower tiers of Italian football. He led Sangiovannese to the third tier in 2004 and reached Serie B when he was appointed by Pescara the following season.
After coaching 16 clubs in just over 20 years, he made his big breakthrough by leading Empoli to Serie A in 2013-14.
Former Napoli hero Diego Maradona is among those who thought that his move to the club was a bridge too far.
“Sarri is a good person, but he’s not worthy of Napoli,” he said shortly after Sarri’s appointment. “They needed a coach who understands the size and prestige of the club.”
Four months later, the Argentina World Cup winner had changed his tune.
“I was wrong about Sarri,” he said. “I ask for forgiveness.”
(Writing by Brian Homewood, editing by Ed Osmond)