Pep Guardiola or Maurizio Sarri?
It's not a question that would give many people pause. The former is a two-time Champions League winner, credited with launching a tiki-tactical revolution and guiding Lionel Messi's development from gifted youngster to generational talent. The latter has never won a major championship of any description.
And yet, when a journalist asked Aurelio De Laurentiis whether he would swap Sarri for Guardiola earlier this month, he dismissed the idea out of hand. “I would never make that trade,” insisted the Napoli owner. “Not even if they took the same salary.”
They do not, of course. Not anywhere close. Guardiola is reported to earn upwards of £15 million at Manchester City, whereas Sarri recently negotiated a raise to just a little more than 10 percent of that sum. That gulf should not surprise anyone, given their respective achievements and the spending power of the clubs that employ them.
Likewise, it is hardly a shock to hear an employer sticking up for his own guy. What might be more unexpected – for those who have not been paying attention – would be to hear Guardiola describe Sarri as, “one of the coaches I admire the most,” over the weekend.
This was not simple politeness towards an upcoming opponent, nor, as De Laurentiis suggested, some crafty mind game. Guardiola has been expressing his enthusiasm for the football played by Sarri’s team for some time now. Back in May, long before these sides were drawn together in the Champions League, the Spaniard insisted that, “Napoli play the best football in Italy,” even though Juventus had just won Serie A.
Nor is it hard to see what Guardiola might appreciate. Napoli are a team built on similar principles to City: a little more direct, perhaps, but still founded in the first instance on quick interchanges, a high press, and a desire to play with the ball at their feet.
Even the attacking trio of José Callejón, Dries Mertens, and Lorenzo Insigne call to mind Guardiola’s previous Barcelona core of Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. They do not play the same positions, but both sets of undersized technicians were perfected through a similar process of meticulous and relentless repetition.
Scratch beneath the surface, and you might discover that Guardiola and Sarri see football in much the same way. There is, admittedly, quite a bit of surface to get through. Guardiola is a turtleneck-wearing modern man with a successful playing career behind him, whereas Sarri is a gruff 58-year-old chain smoker, who prefers tracksuits despite (or maybe because of) the fact he had a day job trading currency for a bank as recently as 2002.
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Yet they share a sense of idealism - a belief that football can be dazzling and devastating at the same time. Contrary to what you might expect, both men are also obsessive about the way their prepare their back-lines.
“Attack is more based on innate talent,” according to Guardiola. “Defence is about the work you put into it.” At Bayern Munich, centre-back Javi Martínez claimed to have been shown “200 videos” as they worked together to refine his game. Meanwhile, at Napoli, Sarri made headlines at his first training camp by deploying a team of drones to track his defenders’ movements so he could show them every misstep.
From a distance, the Italian has both admired Guardiola and been frustrated by him. Sarri’s path to Napoli was hard-won: he had been coaching amateur sides in his evenings after work at the bank, and only went full-time after getting Sansovino promoted to Serie D – a level at which he knew he would need to devote more of his time to the football pitch.
He went on to manage 11 clubs in 14 years, finally reaching the top-flight with Empoli and then landing the Napoli job after keeping the Tuscans up at the first attempt. Even then, there were some who accused De Laurentiis of hiring him only because he came cheaper than some more high-profile alternatives.
Guardiola, in contrast, got his first managerial post with Barcelona’s B team, then got promoted to the main job after one year. “Guardiola did some damage,” said Sarri in February. “By doing so well at Barcelona, so quickly, he convinced other clubs to do the same thing (hiring former players over coaches who had worked their way up the ladder).”
The criticism was not really of Guardiola, but of the collective failure of imagination among those clubs making the hires. Now, at least, Sarri can provide the counterpoint, offering evidence to any team owner that it can pay to trust a guy from a less obvious background.
Napoli have not yet won a major trophy under his stewardship, but they operate in a different financial reality to Barcelona, Bayern, or Man City. Their wage bill is roughly one-half that of Juventus, and yet they currently sit five points ahead of the Bianconeri atop Serie A. Napoli have won eight out of eight games domestically, scoring an astonishing 26 goals along the way.
It's still far too early to put Sarri on par with Guardiola. But if the City boss is excited to test his wits against a side managed by a former banker who has never won a major soccer championship, who are we to make that judgement?