In charge of Napoli for the last two seasons, Walter Mazzarri is one of a new wave of Italian coaches who have broken with the defensive traditions of Serie A in favour of a more attractive brand of football.
Though the former defensive midfielder fell short of the highest level during his playing days, the same cannot be said of his coaching career. A little over two years ago he was recruited from Sampdoria by Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentis, the man who rescued the southern club from oblivion in September 2004.
Since taking over from his predecessor Roberto Donadoni, Mazzarri has brought back the glory years of the 1980s, when Napoli traded blows with Italy’s northern giants. In reward for an excellent league campaign last season, I Partenopei secured a place in the UEFA Champions League and are now awaiting a Round of 16 tie against Chelsea. A place in the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia is also theirs following last week’s 2-0 defeat of Inter Milan.
Discussing the Neapolitan renaissance with FIFA.com, Mazzarri reveals his vision of the game, his short- and long-term goals and his methods for managing a side crammed with attacking talent.
FIFA.com: Walter, you hail from Tuscany but you have a reputation in Italy for being as superstitious as a Neapolitan. Is there any truth in that?
Walter Mazzarri: Not really. I believe in organising my work down to the last detail, and the way I see things there really isn’t much room for superstition. Obviously there are times when things go well and you look back and put it down to something that’s brought you luck. When that happens I always ask my players to repeat everything they’ve done in the lead-up to winning a game.
You also have a reputation as a straight talker and you’ve said that you always speak your mind. Is that not risky in modern-day football?
Yes, that is my motto. I know it’s a risky approach in the football world but I’m proud of the way I am. I want to approach football in the same way I approach life: always the same, no compromises.
You were Renzo Ulivieri’s assistant coach at Napoli during the 1998/99 season. How much had the club changed when you came back in 2009?
An awful lot has changed. For a start, football has changed a lot more quickly than you think. Working with Ulivieri was very useful for me. I’ve grown and developed since then and I’ve had a lot of different experiences (the Napoli job is the eighth of his club career). And in terms of the club I think everything’s changed over these last ten years.
Is this the first time you’ve been in charge of such a strong team?
It’s the strongest team I’ve coached, which is not quite the same way of looking at it. It all depends on what yardstick you’re using. I’m talking about a team with potential, who can then go out on the pitch and play good football.
You’re employing a 3-4-3 formation at Napoli, though the team are at their most dangerous on the break. Why is that and does it not go against the grain in the land of catenaccio?
That’s exactly the reason why I see myself as an innovator. I’m an Italian coach but I advocate a flexible style of football that isn’t based on just the one system. In any case, it’s not the system that counts but the mindset, the movements and the selection of players according to their position on the pitch. We’re effective on the counter because these days teams have to be capable of doing everything as well as they possibly can. The counter-attack is effective when it’s launched from deep down the pitch, with the whole team involved.
Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Goran Pandev, Marek Hamsik and now Eduardo Vargas: how do you manage to juggle a squad of players with so much goalscoring talent?
And who told you they all have to play at the same time? (laughs) Having so many attackers in the squad means you’ve always got plenty of good options, just like any big team. It’s also important to get your selections right, to look at the formation and know which player will contribute most to the team. It’s how the team plays that’s always the key thing for me. Players are there to make the side stronger.
Are you eventually looking to make Napoli play the same kind of football as Barcelona?
We know what kind of system works best for our team and we’re trying to develop that as much as we can. We don’t model ourselves on any side, but obviously Barcelona, who are making history right now, have a winning mentality and that’s the image they’re projecting to everyone. A lot of other clubs have studied the way they play, and their style is a benchmark for everyone.
Which is more important to you right now: beating Chelsea in the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League or a top-three finish in Serie A?
We said at the start of the season that this ought to be a year of development. We’re not thinking about any specific objectives but we’ll fulfil all our commitments as best we possibly can. We’ll analyse everything at the end of the season and draw our conclusions then.
Marcello Lippi has said that Napoli are playing the most exciting and interesting football in Italy. Is your priority to play an attractive game or to get results at all cost?
My thanks to Lippi for rating us so highly. The ideal thing for me is to play elegant, dynamic football that’s easy on the eye, but it goes without saying that we’re doing our utmost to get results at the same time.
You’ve said in the past that you want to be the “Alex Ferguson of Naples”. Does that mean you want to stay here for a long time and achieve something lasting?
I like the way Ferguson has gone about his work at Manchester [United]. It’s a very functional model, one you see in England more than anywhere else, and it's clear that I find the role of manager-coach fascinating.
Do you think Napoli have finally emerged from the shadow of Diego Maradona?
Every era is different. Maradona represents Napoli’s history and we’re doing all we can to make the city understand that. That said, we are proud to have brought the enthusiasm and passion of that period back to Naples.