For a club traditionally associated with expansive, attacking football, the fact that “boring” has become the watchword of Manchester United’s season is anathema.
Saturday’s dour 1-0 FA Cup defeat of Sheffield United was only the Manchester club’s second win in their last 10 matches in all competitions, and it marked the occasion of the 10th successive home fixture in which Louis van Gaal’s team have failed to score in the first-half.
In this context, Guardian’s Daniel Taylor noted that Old Trafford is now statistically the lowest-scoring ground in England’s four professional leagues (featuring 16 goals for both home and away side in total – the lowest figure of all 92 clubs) and the manager himself admitted that he has at times found his team tedious to watch this season.
“There are matches that I have enjoyed very much”, Van Gaal said. “Against Chelsea I enjoyed it but the result was 0-0 and we could have lost. There are also matches where I’m very bored or angry because we are not disorganizing our opponent’s defense, but that is football.”
Maurizio Sarri, a former banker who made his Serie A touchline debut aged 55, has led Napoli to a point off the top pic.twitter.com/Ol36AIuhmf— TheSPORTbible (@TSBible) January 6, 2016
The panacea to United’s goal-scoring problems has generally been identified in the figure of one of three coaches this season: Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho or Carlo Ancelotti. But with Ancelotti already committed to succeeding Guardiola at Bayern Munich in the summer and Mourinho reportedly viewed as too controversial to take over in the Old Trafford boardroom, United’s apparent determination to replace Van Gaal only with a recent Champions League-winning coach has backed the club into a corner.
After all, there is no guarantee that Guardiola will spurn the approaches of clubs with superior playing-squads such as Manchester City and Chelsea in order to risk his reputation at Manchester United next season (Barcelona and Bayern Munich weren’t exactly “fixer-upper” jobs), and even if Pep was to take over at Old Trafford, it is unlikely that he would prove an instant success given how far the club has fallen behind the European elite since last reaching the Champions League final in 2011.
With this in mind, Manchester United’s chief-executive, Ed Woodward, might do well to expand his search beyond Champions League-winning coaches when appointing Van Gaal’s successor over the next 18 months, and Napoli’s improvement under Maurizio Sarri this season does much to recommend such a perspective.
A great deal of skepticism greeted Sarri’s appointment in place of the recently sacked Real Madrid manager Rafael Benitez as Napoli coach in June. While the chain-smoking 57-year-old’s Neapolitan roots ensured that his arrival was met with some warm sentiment, the fact that he had worked as a full-time banker as recently as 2000 and possessed only one season of top-flight managerial experience (with Empoli, 2014/15) meant that many doubted his ability to motivate a dressing-room populated by top-level internationals such as Gonzalo Higuain, Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne.
The fact that the Partenopei lost one and drew two of Sarri’s first three matches in charge hardly helped to boost confidence in his ability to deliver Napoli’s first Scudetto in 16 years, and the coach was further undermined when the star of 1990 Serie A-winning side, Diego Maradona, told Naples television station Piuenne that Sarri was “not the right man for a winning Napoli.”
“I don’t know what happened this summer but Benitez was a guarantee for this side,” Maradona said. “I respect Sarri, but he’s not the right coach for a winning Napoli. They gave Sarri a huge birthday present [by appointing him].”
But three months on from Maradona’s comments, Napoli have ascended to the top of Serie A at the league’s half-way point for the first time since they last won the Scudetto, they topped their Europa League group with a 100 percent record and have won 19 of their last 23 matches, losing once.
Furthermore, Sarri’s men are playing with a flare and adventure reminiscent of Maradona’s title-winning side. Sunday’s 1-5 win at Frosinone, for instance, marked the fifth occasion on which Napoli have scored five goals this season, they are the highest-scoring side in Serie A (38, five ahead of Juventus) and both Higuain and Insigne have reached another level under Sarri, scoring 19 and eight goals respectively in all competitions.
The transformation has been remarkable, and Sarri has achieved cult-status among Napoli supporters as a consequence.
Maradona, for instance, has apologized for his initial doubt, and the fact that, as Paolo Bandini pointed out, the last 12 Serie A half-way leaders have gone on to win the Scudetto means that Napoli are strongly positioned to end Juventus’ quest for a record-equalling fifth consecutive league title.
No player has more goals in Europe's top 5 leagues this season than Gonzalo Higuain (18). Shining under Sarri. pic.twitter.com/EG5vcW7ndR— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 10, 2016
Sarri, a man who was sacked by third-tier Sorrento just three seasons ago, has been a phenomenon in Naples, and his achievement lends weight to the contention that a track record of elite-level managerial success should not be looked upon as a pre-requisite for a big club appointment.
Manchester United would do well to take account of Sarri and Napoli’s accomplishments.
[Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images]