Even with a perfect start to the Serie A campaign for Napoli so far, there has been some concern about the way Maurizio Sarri has rotated/rested his players. And with the Champions League now in full swing, squad rotation will become even more important moving forward.
Sarri, for all of his tactical wizardry, was criticized last year for the same reason, as many felt that the squad was running on empty by the time they met Real Madrid in the Champions League Round of 16.
In all fairness, since the second Madrid Champions League fixture in early March, Napoli has gone undefeated in league matches (13 wins, 2 draws) so the criticism may be a little harsh right now. But after seeing the rotation (or lack thereof) so far, and taking into account a disappointing performance against Shakhtar Donetsk, it is fair to wonder if we are setting ourselves up for problems down the road.
Coming into this season, the first important goal for Napoli was to make it through Champions League qualification and into the group stage. For the two matches against Nice, we used our preferred starting XI to ensure that we advanced – REINA / GHOULAM, ALBIOL, KOULIBALY, HYSAJ / JORGINHO, ALLAN, HAMSIK / INSIGNE, MERTENS, CALLEJON.
As we all know, Napoli won 4-0 on aggregate.
In between those two matches, Napoli opened the Serie A campaign away to Hellas Verona. In this match, Sarri wisely made use of his bench, utilizing Milik for Mertens, Zielinski for Allan, Diawara for Jorginho, and Chiriches for Albiol. The result was a rather easy 3-1 win.
For the next match, home to Atalanta, Sarri went back to the preferred starting XI but with two exceptions, Zielinski in place of Allan, and Maggio for Hysaj (who was forced to sit due to a red card). Napoli looked outclassed in the first half, and fell behind 1-0 early, but eventually stormed back to take another 3-1 win (thanks in large part to the incredible goal from Zielinski).
With an international break the following week, everything was right on track. We had qualified for the Champions League, taken the maximum amount of points from league matches, and Sarri was showing a willingness to use the squad depth to his advantage.
This is where it gets interesting.
After the break, Napoli played away to Bologna. Sarri went back to the preferred XI, but with Chiriches in for Albiol. Unfortunately, Albiol was not able to get a full day off, as he was called to replace Chiriches in the 43rd minute after a shoulder injury. Napoli again took over in the 2nd half and finished with a 3-0 win.
Three days later, we opened up the Champions League group stage with an away fixture against Shakhtar Donetsk. In terms of squad rotation and the importance of the match, this seems to be the one that is the most confusing for supporters. We went with three changes – Milik for Mertens, Zielinski for Allan, and Diawara for Jorginho. As a result, Shakhtar took control, dominated the midfield throughout the match, and earned a 2-1 victory.
We returned to the San Paolo four days after that, home to Benevento. Many fans had this one circled as the perfect time to rest some of our most important players. Instead, Sarri surprised everyone and sent out the preferred XI. The match finished 6-0 to Napoli and it honestly wasn’t even that close. However, it again raised a red flag about our depth and rotation patterns.
While I am concerned about what kind of effect this will have in the long run, it should also be noted that Sarri’s in-game substitutions have been very good all season. He has shown an ability to make the right moves at the right time (even if it means removing our captain on the hour mark), which has been crucial to our success.
Up to this point in the league, we have done very well to take advantage of our lighter schedule and earn all 12 points. But with the upcoming schedule showing 3 matches in 6 days, including away to a very much in-form Lazio squad, and a must-win Champions League match against Feyenoord, we’ll have to use every ounce of energy to come away with positive results.
It could certainly be possible that Sarri is going all out to win the Scudetto/Coppa Italia this year, and is comfortable letting the Champions League chips fall where they may (personally, I can’t disagree with that strategy).
Whatever the case, we’ll learn a lot more about our priorities for this season over the next week.