No sooner had the football ended, than the band began to play. ‘Il valzer delle panchine’ – ‘the waltz of the benches’ – is one of the more colourful idioms used by Italians to describe the string of managerial sackings and appointments that takes place in the country every summer.
That phrase might even reflect a little of the national mindset. Where English managers are left at the mercy of a mechanical ‘merry-go-round’, their Italian counterparts are thought to hold some kind of control. They might not get to call the tunes, but they can at least determine where their footsteps take them.
One manager, indeed, has already shown off some bold moves this summer. Walter Mazzarri could have led Napoli back into the Champions League next season after steering them to a second-place finish in Serie A. Instead he two-stepped away with Inter, a team which finished ninth this year after losing a dismal 16 games.
Mazzarri had been mulling this switch over for more than 12 months, ever since discovering last spring that the Inter owner, Massimo Moratti, was a keen admirer of his work. The newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport reported that the manager had even phoned up one unnamed journalist with connections at Inter in the hopes of gleaning a little insight into the owner’s plans for the club.
The Nerazzurri had sacked Claudio Ranieri in March of 2012, and were expected to seek out a full-time replacement in the summer. Instead Moratti gave the job to his former youth team coach Andrea Stramaccioni, who had impressed during a brief stint as caretaker manager. Mazzarri, after weeks of stalling, confirmed his intention to stay with Napoli just two days after Stramaccioni’s deal was signed.
Quite why the Inter job appealed so strongly is a subject that Mazzarri has not yet discussed. The manager has declined to speak about his new club in advance of his introductory press conference, which should take place sometime in the next few days. But it has not escaped the public’s attention that Napoli finished above Inter in each of the last two seasons.
Mazzarri explained his decision to leave Napoli earlier this month by saying that he needed a change of scenery, and perhaps even a year-long sabbatical from the game. The speed with which he reached an agreement with Inter, however, damaged the credibility of those claims. In reality he would not have taken this job unless he believed he was taking a step forwards in his career.
This is a man whose gaze has always been cast upwards. Climbing the pyramid the old-fashioned way, Mazzarri began his managerial career with Acireale in Serie C2—then the fourth-tier of Italian football—and rose up the ranks one job at a time, moving to Pistoiese in Serie C1, Livorno in Serie B, then Reggina in Serie A. Next he joined a Sampdoria team with European ambitions, then a Napoli side whose owner dreamed of fighting for the Scudetto.
Every post has taken Mazzarri closer to the pinnacle of the Italian game. If he was prepared to take on the Inter job this summer, it will be only because he believes that the club is better positioned to win trophies going forwards than his former employers were.
That prospect is not as improbable as it might first appear. Inter were, after all, touted as potential title challengers as recently as last November, when they became the first team to beat Antonio Conte’s Juventus in a Serie A game, and climbed to within a point of the league leaders. Their subsequent collapse might have had more to do with a catastrophic run of injuries than with any fundamental weaknesses.
At the peak of their crisis, Inter had to cope without 15 members of their first-team squad. Bad luck clearly played a role, but Mazzarri also believes that many injuries can be avoided through the right preparation. He will bring his own conditioning coach, Giuseppe Pondrelli, with him from Napoli, and has already requested that Inter’s preseason training camp be extended by two days in order to work on the players’ fitness.
Mazzarri will expect to improve more than just his players’ health. Although the manager has been quick to assert his tactical flexibility, he is expected nevertheless to move Inter to a three-man defence similar to that which he used at Napoli. The wing-back Camilo Zuniga is said to be the player Mazzarri most wants to sign from his former employers.
It remains to be seen how that bid would go down in Naples. Since departing Napoli, Mazzarri has been likened to a cheating wife by the club’s owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, and deemed a “traitor” many times by its fans. Yet what makes his move all the more fascinating is the fact that Napoli themselves will be led next season by a former Inter manager.
No sooner had Mazzarri’s departure been confirmed this week than Rafael Benítez waltzed over to take his place. As promised, De Laurentiis made the announcement via Twitter, posting a picture of himself shaking hands with the Spaniard after the latter had terms on a €3.5m per year contract (roughly the same amount, incidentally, that Mazzarri will receive at Inter).
The appointment was a PR coup for De Laurentiis, a man who is highly attuned to such things. Benítez, fresh from his Europa League triumph with Chelsea, was one of the most high-profile managers available in European football, and certainly a man with more international recognition than Mazzarri.
Whether or not that will translate to success on the field is another matter, of course. Benítez’s last stint in Italy was not an especially happy one, even if it did end with him leading Inter to victory in the Club World Cup. The circumstances this time around are notably different. In 2010, Benítez took over an Inter team which had just won the treble. In Naples he will find a team that still believes it has everything left to achieve.
At Inter, furthermore, Benítez found himself in the awkward position of attempting to install a tactical scheme that was very similar to the one used by his predecessor José Mourinho. Both men utilised a variation on a 4-2-3-1 as their base formation, and Benítez’s attempts to make subtle tweaks to a successful system led only to confusion and criticism. In Naples, for better or worse, he will be imposing a far more drastic change of approach.
The great unknown quantity for Napoli, of course, is whether Edinson Cavani will hang around to be part of Benítez’s new vision. It has been reported that the team are drawing up two separate transfer strategies for this summer, one in which the Uruguayan stays, and another in which he departs. The club’s Champions League participation has raised its spending power, and any transfer revenue from an eventual sale of Cavani should be made available for immediate reinvestment.
Benítez said all the right things Monday, praising Napoli’s history and culture, and saying that he was looking forward becoming part of the family. After two years out of the game, then six mad months at Chelsea, the manager is ready to get stuck into a fresh project. A man can only take part in so many waltzes before he gets tired of dancing.