BREAKING GROUND: HOW MAURIZIO SARRI BECAME ONE OF EUROPE’S MOST EXCITING MANAGERS

At a time when Empoli were struggling, they lacked stability. The ownership was awry, and they were content with chopping and changing managers. So, when the time for stability came and it was most required, they were on the fringes of the third-tier of Italian football. This was in 2012 and they needed a point to survive in Serie B. Dramatically, they came from two goals down to win 3-2, and this was the last few seasons for them in a nutshell.

Those days, Maurizio Sarri wasn’t Empoli’s manager. The club has changed their manager four times in nine months, only to call back Alfredo Aglietti, who started the season. Some of the players would be there three years later, when Empoli would win the hearts of Serie A fans, defying early predictions with an exciting brand of football. Yet, the city and the fans didn’t know what they were about to see.

A whole host of managers have come and gone since Fabrizio Corsi became chairman of the club in 1991. The list includes prominent names such as Francesco Guidolin, Luciano Spaletti and Marco Giampaolo amongst others, but none were as exciting as one Maurizio Sarri, for the football he brought to Tuscany was breathtaking.

Born in Naples, Sarri grew up in Arezzo. Having spent his teen years and early adulthood dealing with money with his job in the finance department of a bank, his passion for football was eternal. In the early ‘90s, he took his passion a tad bit further by taking up the reigns of tiny Stia, while still keeping his job in the bank. For a decade, he enjoyed the best of both worlds, but in 2001, he took over at lowly Sansovino, thus becoming a full-time manager and leaving the world of money.

The risk was worthwhile. What was a stable job in the bank was all put on the line for the volatile world of football management – a world which is all the more unforgiving in Italy – but he had the results to prove that he was up for the task. Sansovino went from the sixth tier to the fourth tier in the three years he was there, and he was then went to Sangiovannese, who he took from Serie C2 to Serie C1. For Sarri, success was a constant in his early career and that’s when the big fish started to swarm around. Pescara, a club with great history who were plying their trade in Serie B would be the next to take a punt on him.

Perhaps that jump came too soon, perhaps Sarri should’ve given himself more time. After taking the Pescara role, things started to go downhill for him. He wasn’t as enriching as his previous roles which built up his reputation and after a solitary season where he failed to achieve anything noteworthy, he resigned and went home to Arezzo, replacing the iconic Antonio Conte. Still in Serie B and with lower expectations than at his previous job, Arezzo was the ideal place for him to recuperate.

This too, was a tale of two different chapters. On one side, Arezzo were overachieving in the Coppa Italia, going to the quarter-finals, even sealing a famous 1-0 win over powerhouses AC Milan on the way, but on the other side, they were struggling in the league, being rooted to the extreme bottom of Serie B. This meant that Sarri would be on the move again, being replaced by the man he replaced, Antonio Conte, but he too failed to help the club retain their second-tier status.

After a good start to his career, Sarri was starting to become a bit of a wanderer amongst lower-league clubs, taking up three different jobs in the space of 18 months and hardly lasting in them. Each club he took up had a strong history in Italian football folklore, but Sarri was just becoming a part of it, rather than making it himself. Avellino, Hellas Verona and Perugia were all willing to Sarri a run but there was nothing of note. Grosseto and Alessandria also gave him a shot where he gradually improved – the former almost earned promotion – and then Sorrento came, which would be his final job before rising to become one of Italy’s best.

After five months with Sorrento, Empoli was his next stop and to some extent, this had to work for Sarri to continue his career in football. He had been a journeyman up until this point and never truly settled at one club with one philosophy, so this task at Empoli had to strike the eye. His record was concerning and the fans even made it clear, but Empoli weren’t doing too well themselves, both on the pitch and off it, so maybe this could’ve worked for the better, seeing as employee and employer were desperate to get things right.

It wasn’t easy for Sarri to adjust instantly. Coming back to Serie B after two seasons in the tier below and to a league where anything can happen, he set low expectations for himself when speaking early in his time there, but still kept his pride. At his disposal, he had a fair amount of talent available and his idea was to work with a 4-2-3-1 formation or a variant of the 4-4-1-1 in order to work on his team’s pressing style and verticalize the ball as much as possible. This would, of course, require certain skillsets amongst his squad and most of all, time.

The turnover amongst the playing staff were high due to Empoli’s unstable financial condition as many players were just let go off on a free transfer. To replace them, Sarri chose to keep his tried-and-trusted lieutenants, bringing in players from several of his former clubs like Pescara, Sorrento and Alessandria.

The club could also count on a terrific couple of forwards, especially for Serie B, like Francesco Tavano and Massimo Maccarone, who lived great days even in Serie A and abroad. But Sarri-ball – a term now in use by those in England – takes time to shape itself.

Sarri made a slow start to life in Empoli, taking 10 games to achieve his first win as they only gained four points. A few tactical tweaks here and there would see them show some encouraging signs, but while the football that was trying to be implemented was clear, the results just couldn’t follow. Sarri would ditch his original plans and make some adjustments to the roles of his players. Vincent Laurini, Elseid Hysaj and Lorenzo Tonelli picked up Sarri’s teachings at a quick rate, Mirko Valdifiori was improving in the regista role and the emerging Riccardo Samponara was in the form his life.

Results changed immediately and drastically and they moved from rock bottom in the league to end up in fourth and a relegation play-off spot. They eventually lost out, but the change in the season’s expectations – going from being threatened by relegation to challenging for promotion – convinced everyone associated with the club that Sarri was the right man for the job.

More faith meant more control in the transfer market. Daniele Rugani and Mário Rui – two quality young defenders – joined Sarri’s ranks, while Simone Verdi and Federico Barba were excited by the project. Their main challenge were the historic Palermo, who themselves had loads of star power in the squad, but that didn’t frighten them. After a great campaign, they just needed a win on the final day of the season against one of Sarri’s ex-clubs, Pescara, and with a 2-0 success, they would celebrate their return to the top flight after six years – a feat deemed to be impossible when they appointed the manager.

After that, Empoli just wanted to grow and were willing to compete in the transfer market to preserve their Serie A status for a long time. Luigi Sepe was brought in to play in the net, while Diego Laxalt, Matías Vecino and Piotr Zielinski – all of whom had so much untapped potential – were ready to expose their grand talents to the rest of Italy. Those were the right moves: maintaining the solid core of the promotion-winning side is the strongest way to obtain safety in Serie A, especially if you have your own brand of football.

When talking about his transfer activity, Sarri expertly claimed: “Look at Sassuolo (promoted from the previous season): they bought 10 players in January and they avoided relegation with the men who brought the club from B to A”. He had faith in his plans and everyone associated with the club did too.

In the first 10 games of 2014-15 Serie A, Empoli won just once: they’re just above the relegation zone, but they’re struggling to find some points. But right after that, a win against Lazio would spur them on. They would be untroubled and away from the relegation zones for much of the campaign and would also see fan-favourite Riccardo Saponara make a return. Just like previous seasons, his team’s second-half of the campaign goes much better and Empoli finish in 15th – a reasonable return.

Unfortunately for Empoli, that season would be Sarri’s last. AC Milan and Napoli would be in a duel to get his services and it would be the latter to obtain it. The stern Aurelio De Laurentiis, a man that’s usually difficult to please, was encouraged by the scenes over at Empoli and this was an easy decision for him to make. The rest, as they say, is history.

Maurizio Sarri’s blueprint remained beyond his cycle. He developed and changed the careers of many players: Rugani was called to play for the Italian national team and would go on to play for Italy’s best clubs side in Juventus, while Valdifiori even featured in a friendly game of March 2015 against England. The year after, the midfielder and Hysaj followed Sarri to Napoli, while Sepe and Zielinski would cross the coach again just one year later; Vecino became a key-player for Fiorentina while there were other key moves elsewhere.

Empoli didn’t change much either. They kept the same 4-3-1-2 principles that worked so well under their former manager and became an even better side, albeit temporarily. They soon went down but would yo-yo between divisions. However, it is clear that Sarri was the best and most influential manager they had in recent times.

To think back, the 4-2 home win against Napoli in April 2015 represents one of the finest nights of Sarri’s career as well as recent Empoli history. It featured all: his present, his future and the end of Benitez’s cycle in Naples. t featured all the problems Sarri was going to solve in next months, once arrived under the Vesuvio, and all the beauty that a small club could bring in Serie A. Few noticed, but the seeds of wonderful times were there, and exciting football were first exposed to the world on that night. Since then, he’s become a household name and a man well-revered in modern football.

At a time when Empoli were struggling, they lacked stability. The ownership was awry, and they were content with chopping and changing managers. So, when the time for stability came and it was most required, they were on the fringes of the third-tier of Italian football. This was in 2012 and they needed a point to survive in Serie B. Dramatically, they came from two goals down to win 3-2, and this was the last few seasons for them in a nutshell.

Those days, Maurizio Sarri wasn’t Empoli’s manager. The club has changed their manager four times in nine months, only to call back Alfredo Aglietti, who started the season. Some of the players would be there three years later, when Empoli would win the hearts of Serie A fans, defying early predictions with an exciting brand of football. Yet, the city and the fans didn’t know what they were about to see.

A whole host of managers have come and gone since Fabrizio Corsi became chairman of the club in 1991. The list includes prominent names such as Francesco Guidolin, Luciano Spaletti and Marco Giampaolo amongst others, but none were as exciting as one Maurizio Sarri, for the football he brought to Tuscany was breathtaking.

Born in Naples, Sarri grew up in Arezzo. Having spent his teen years and early adulthood dealing with money with his job in the finance department of a bank, his passion for football was eternal. In the early ‘90s, he took his passion a tad bit further by taking up the reigns of tiny Stia, while still keeping his job in the bank. For a decade, he enjoyed the best of both worlds, but in 2001, he took over at lowly Sansovino, thus becoming a full-time manager and leaving the world of money.

The risk was worthwhile. What was a stable job in the bank was all put on the line for the volatile world of football management – a world which is all the more unforgiving in Italy – but he had the results to prove that he was up for the task. Sansovino went from the sixth tier to the fourth tier in the three years he was there, and he was then went to Sangiovannese, who he took from Serie C2 to Serie C1. For Sarri, success was a constant in his early career and that’s when the big fish started to swarm around. Pescara, a club with great history who were plying their trade in Serie B would be the next to take a punt on him.

Perhaps that jump came too soon, perhaps Sarri should’ve given himself more time. After taking the Pescara role, things started to go downhill for him. He wasn’t as enriching as his previous roles which built up his reputation and after a solitary season where he failed to achieve anything noteworthy, he resigned and went home to Arezzo, replacing the iconic Antonio Conte. Still in Serie B and with lower expectations than at his previous job, Arezzo was the ideal place for him to recuperate.

This too, was a tale of two different chapters. On one side, Arezzo were overachieving in the Coppa Italia, going to the quarter-finals, even sealing a famous 1-0 win over powerhouses AC Milan on the way, but on the other side, they were struggling in the league, being rooted to the extreme bottom of Serie B. This meant that Sarri would be on the move again, being replaced by the man he replaced, Antonio Conte, but he too failed to help the club retain their second-tier status.

After a good start to his career, Sarri was starting to become a bit of a wanderer amongst lower-league clubs, taking up three different jobs in the space of 18 months and hardly lasting in them. Each club he took up had a strong history in Italian football folklore, but Sarri was just becoming a part of it, rather than making it himself. Avellino, Hellas Verona and Perugia were all willing to Sarri a run but there was nothing of note. Grosseto and Alessandria also gave him a shot where he gradually improved – the former almost earned promotion – and then Sorrento came, which would be his final job before rising to become one of Italy’s best.

After five months with Sorrento, Empoli was his next stop and to some extent, this had to work for Sarri to continue his career in football. He had been a journeyman up until this point and never truly settled at one club with one philosophy, so this task at Empoli had to strike the eye. His record was concerning and the fans even made it clear, but Empoli weren’t doing too well themselves, both on the pitch and off it, so maybe this could’ve worked for the better, seeing as employee and employer were desperate to get things right.

It wasn’t easy for Sarri to adjust instantly. Coming back to Serie B after two seasons in the tier below and to a league where anything can happen, he set low expectations for himself when speaking early in his time there, but still kept his pride. At his disposal, he had a fair amount of talent available and his idea was to work with a 4-2-3-1 formation or a variant of the 4-4-1-1 in order to work on his team’s pressing style and verticalize the ball as much as possible. This would, of course, require certain skillsets amongst his squad and most of all, time.

The turnover amongst the playing staff were high due to Empoli’s unstable financial condition as many players were just let go off on a free transfer. To replace them, Sarri chose to keep his tried-and-trusted lieutenants, bringing in players from several of his former clubs like Pescara, Sorrento and Alessandria.

The club could also count on a terrific couple of forwards, especially for Serie B, like Francesco Tavano and Massimo Maccarone, who lived great days even in Serie A and abroad. But Sarri-ball – a term now in use by those in England – takes time to shape itself.

Sarri made a slow start to life in Empoli, taking 10 games to achieve his first win as they only gained four points. A few tactical tweaks here and there would see them show some encouraging signs, but while the football that was trying to be implemented was clear, the results just couldn’t follow. Sarri would ditch his original plans and make some adjustments to the roles of his players. Vincent Laurini, Elseid Hysaj and Lorenzo Tonelli picked up Sarri’s teachings at a quick rate, Mirko Valdifiori was improving in the regista role and the emerging Riccardo Samponara was in the form his life.

Results changed immediately and drastically and they moved from rock bottom in the league to end up in fourth and a relegation play-off spot. They eventually lost out, but the change in the season’s expectations – going from being threatened by relegation to challenging for promotion – convinced everyone associated with the club that Sarri was the right man for the job.

More faith meant more control in the transfer market. Daniele Rugani and Mário Rui – two quality young defenders – joined Sarri’s ranks, while Simone Verdi and Federico Barba were excited by the project. Their main challenge were the historic Palermo, who themselves had loads of star power in the squad, but that didn’t frighten them. After a great campaign, they just needed a win on the final day of the season against one of Sarri’s ex-clubs, Pescara, and with a 2-0 success, they would celebrate their return to the top flight after six years – a feat deemed to be impossible when they appointed the manager.

After that, Empoli just wanted to grow and were willing to compete in the transfer market to preserve their Serie A status for a long time. Luigi Sepe was brought in to play in the net, while Diego Laxalt, Matías Vecino and Piotr Zielinski – all of whom had so much untapped potential – were ready to expose their grand talents to the rest of Italy. Those were the right moves: maintaining the solid core of the promotion-winning side is the strongest way to obtain safety in Serie A, especially if you have your own brand of football.

When talking about his transfer activity, Sarri expertly claimed: “Look at Sassuolo (promoted from the previous season): they bought 10 players in January and they avoided relegation with the men who brought the club from B to A”. He had faith in his plans and everyone associated with the club did too.

In the first 10 games of 2014-15 Serie A, Empoli won just once: they’re just above the relegation zone, but they’re struggling to find some points. But right after that, a win against Lazio would spur them on. They would be untroubled and away from the relegation zones for much of the campaign and would also see fan-favourite Riccardo Saponara make a return. Just like previous seasons, his team’s second-half of the campaign goes much better and Empoli finish in 15th – a reasonable return.

Unfortunately for Empoli, that season would be Sarri’s last. AC Milan and Napoli would be in a duel to get his services and it would be the latter to obtain it. The stern Aurelio De Laurentiis, a man that’s usually difficult to please, was encouraged by the scenes over at Empoli and this was an easy decision for him to make. The rest, as they say, is history.

Maurizio Sarri’s blueprint remained beyond his cycle. He developed and changed the careers of many players: Rugani was called to play for the Italian national team and would go on to play for Italy’s best clubs side in Juventus, while Valdifiori even featured in a friendly game of March 2015 against England. The year after, the midfielder and Hysaj followed Sarri to Napoli, while Sepe and Zielinski would cross the coach again just one year later; Vecino became a key-player for Fiorentina while there were other key moves elsewhere.

Empoli didn’t change much either. They kept the same 4-3-1-2 principles that worked so well under their former manager and became an even better side, albeit temporarily. They soon went down but would yo-yo between divisions. However, it is clear that Sarri was the best and most influential manager they had in recent times.

To think back, the 4-2 home win against Napoli in April 2015 represents one of the finest nights of Sarri’s career as well as recent Empoli history. It featured all: his present, his future and the end of Benitez’s cycle in Naples. t featured all the problems Sarri was going to solve in next months, once arrived under the Vesuvio, and all the beauty that a small club could bring in Serie A. Few noticed, but the seeds of wonderful times were there, and exciting football were first exposed to the world on that night. Since then, he’s become a household name and a man well-revered in modern football.

BY GABRIELE ANELLO

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