“We knew it would be a difficult game. Napoli closed the game down,” Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic told Calciomercato.com after their 1-1 draw on Tuesday. “We made a mistake and they scored. It’s difficult to attack against a team that defends with 11 men.”
While many had played up the arrival of Lionel Messi in Naples – a place where his compatriot Diego Maradona is still revered in a hysterical fashion – the superstar failed to penetrate the defensive setup of Gennaro Gattuso’s men.
After being sacked by AC Milan for missing out on Champions League football by one point at the end of last season, the gritty boss was hired by Napoli in December after they sacked Carlo Ancelotti.
He inherited a squad in absolute turmoil, after poor results and a row over a training retreat had boiled over, sparking angry protests from supporters. The issues were not solely down to Ancelotti, but his insistence on fielding a 4-4-2 formation saw opposition teams carve through an almost non-existent midfield like a knife through butter, leaving his backline woefully exposed.
Gattuso immediately identified that he must add some extra coverage in the centre of the park, and it was reported that he would return Napoli to playing with a 4-3-3 system, one that many of the existing players had become so familiar with under previous boss Maurizio Sarri.
Early results saw the Partenopei continue to struggle, with defeats to Parma, Inter, Lazio and Fiorentina all leading many to declare that even expert motivator Gattuso could not turn this squad’s fortunes around.
Then, a 1-0 win over Lazio in the Coppa Italia seemed to be a turning point for Gattuso and his three-man midfield, one that had been bolstered by the arrival of the more defensively minded Diego Demme in January. The next domestic fixture saw them take three points versus Juventus, as well as notching up impressive wins over Inter, Cagliari and Brescia.
“Rino has given consistency and balance to this team, increasing both the passing and possession statistics, as well as being a little more aggressive in the press from the start,” revealed Napoli sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli earlier this week.
“Gattuso brings more balance, a tactical system more suited to many of these players and the chance to play out from the back with ball to feet, which is something they enjoy and appreciate.”
Gennaro Gattuso's work at Napoli shows that he must be taken seriously as a Coach
The turnaround from a team in a seemingly unstoppable dysfunctional downward spiral, to one that is tenacious enough to lead Sergio Busquets to complain that there were “no spaces” to play in on Wednesday, is nothing short of remarkable.
There are those in Italian football who praise Gattuso for all that he is famous for – grit, determination and motivational skills – but pour doubt over his tactical nous and ability to comprehend the finer points of the game.
Yet here we have a Coach who has completely rejuvenated a team that looked lost, made tactical changes that even ultra-experienced boss Carlo Ancelotti failed to do, and successfully set out his stall to frustrate Barcelona in the Champions League.
“I am a little disappointed that we didn’t create more playing out from the back and in possession, but a little fatigue can happen when you work so hard throughout,” Gattuso told Sky Italia after Wednesday’s match. “Unfortunately, you can’t make a single mistake against Barcelona.
“The error on the goal we conceded was Mario Rui broke the defensive line and Maksimovic was meant to get back there, but instead we didn’t time it well and left a gap. In possession, we tended to win back the ball and then get it back to where we started from, whereas we should’ve pushed it forward or across to the other flank.
“If you are in the right position, Barcelona can press all they like and it won’t make a difference. It’s true that having Messi running at you can cause problems, but we still missed something in terms of quality this evening.”
Whether Napoli can go to Camp Nou and achieve a positive result is another matter altogether, but it’s very clear that Gattuso has learned so much since he took his first Serie A role at AC Milan in November 2017.
The old stereotypes say that his manner and approach merely serve to fire up those who play for him, but the truth is that there is more to Gennaro Gattuso than his bombastic nature. His work at Napoli shows that he must be taken seriously as a Coach from now on.