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Roma’s Injury Crisis: What Can We Learn From Napoli?

This is a rare candid interview from Napoli’s coaching staff with Il Napolista. We couldn’t miss it.

SSC Napoli v UC Sampdoria - Serie A Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Napoli’s coaching staff draw admiring glances all around Italy for their club’s fitness record over the last few seasons, consolidated this year by the arrival of Ancelotti and his forward-thinking entourage on top of already impressive results before them. Their aura is very similar to Fabio Capello’s coaching staff of the 2000s. The temptation to bullshit or self-aggrandize must be higher than ever for these guys.

They are in demand, and their techniques will be scrutinised and mimicked all over the peninsula if not beyond (except for Munich where they never got along with the German way of life). So it was all the more impressive when they gave a remarkably candid interview to Il Napolista last week about their methods and the trial-and-error nature of their approach to applied data.

This season’s Roma training regime was one of the few areas where Di Francesco was indefensible. EDF brought in changes that only made the situation worse. Nonetheless, Roma re-hiring Ed Lippie doesn’t - in itself - solve the problem. Maybe Roma can learn something from their next league opponents Napoli here, in a season where the Giallorossi have racked up a ridiculous number of muscle injuries.

The interview was done with three members of Ancelotti’s team - Luca Guerra (31), Manuel Morabito (28) and Francesco Mauri (31) - all very young in coaching terms. Ancelotti sometimes dropped in to give a one-liner here and there but Mauri did most of the talking.

Mauri is a second-generation football coach, who’s father Giovanni worked on Ancelotti’s staff for years. The younger Mauri has already worked at PSG, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich before following Ancelotti to Napoli as the club’s coordinator for all coaching staff.

Morabito is Napoli’s physical trainer in the gym, tasked with injury prevention and muscle training. Guerra handles the analysis of performance data for all the players, setting the players’ individual objectives on a game-by-game basis.

All three work together with two other coaches, Davide Ancelotti and match analyst Simone Montaro.

On Work Culture

FC Porto v AS Roma - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

Mauri once trained the man many consider to be the greatest worker of them all, Cristiano Ronaldo, in his time at Real. After one particular tough training session, Mauri took note of Ronaldo’s favoured proverb at the time: “Too much water kills the plants.”

“And he was right,” said Mauri to Il Napolista. “Even physical work is now emphasised as though it’s meant to be done with a ball. But it’s important to develop both athletic and tactical skills in a player, to marry their physical targets with each training session.”

Mauri has come under criticism from people he himself labels ‘the incompetents’ - mirroring the kind of words that got Kolarov in hot water for saying ‘fans know nothing about football’ - for a training regime that could initially be considered bland. Mauri doesn’t emphasise training with a ball and ‘making things fun’, contrary to the in-vogue training of today, but instead looks to adapt each training session to a player’s individual needs so as to make it personally stimulating for them. In effect, the goal is for players to find the desire to train themselves.

“It’s hard to get across the idea that the most important thing is to work well, not work more. It’s the quality of work that makes all the difference. The volume of work done is inversely proportionate to the quality of that very same workload.”

“It’s an Italian culture problem most of all, but not just Italian. In France, they made a big deal out of the three-day rest period given to PSG before their Champions League elimination. The decision to train was already made, and they would have even not played for ten days because of the Yellow Jacket protests but the public did not take that well. The passionate football fan or the incompetents see the super-work culture in a good light. They can’t handle the thought that a millionaire footballer will train for an hour and fifteen minutes a day.”

Contrary to what Mauro says about Italian culture, his way of reasoning physical training is not a world away from the FIGC’s way of reasoning tactical training of young Italian players. The movement to get players to teach themselves their own tactical position on the pitch has been in place since 2014, led by Renzo Ulivieri. Mauri sounds like he’s simply bringing the same data-led principles to PT. The overall aim is to treat players like adults who want to better themselves, not troops who show up and await orders at bootcamp. Mauri claims a lot of marrying physical education with tactics training is owed to the Portuguese school of thought. “Queiroz was the first to talk about tactics in this way.”

“Let’s take Albiol as an example: 87-88 kilograms, one bad knee, a thousand games under his belt, and four children. Why should I make him run two hundred metres, ten times a day when I know he’s getting better results in a mini-training match where he certainly moves less but gets in one sprint more? It would be ridiculous to do otherwise.”

‘Football Is Intensity’: Less Running, More Speed

SSC Napoli v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

“The major thinking behind our method is essential to a team playing out Ancelotti’s ideas, whether that team be Napoli, Bayern or Real Madrid. They will always have more or less the same approach to the game. That is to run less than their opponents over the total distance of a match, 80% of the time. At Napoli that 80% has become 70 or 65%, so even less than at Bayern or Real. But as far as high-intensity and very-high intensity running goes, this Napoli team is one that sprints more than the opponent 80% of the time.”

In today’s athletic game, you’ve probably already read elsewhere that football coaches underwent a radical change of thinking in the last decade. Instead of focusing on pace, coaches realised acceleration past your opponent is the real difference-maker.

“To understand that difference in one player, Salah,” sums up Mauri. “Or Chiesa, if you want to look around Italy. Or Insigne and Callejon in Napoli. Then obviously there are others like Messi, who needs more time to recover between games and runs nine thousand kilometres a game. No one would ask him to run more. That’s the beauty and diversity of football.”

“There are stats that always come out in the press after you lose games. After the 3-0 loss to Sampdoria, it came out that Napoli were the team who ran less that day. Few know that the games in which Napoli ran less overall were the same games we dominated, where we were more precise and made less mistakes.”

“The truth is that results decide everything,” adds Napoli’s sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli to Il Napolista. “When we lose, people have to find a reason. And all the attention gets shifted to match preparation. There’s an incredible bombardment from the middlemen [of the press].”

“We often mislead ourselves in any case,” says Guerra. “Many times we were convinced we’d seen one result and the reality was that result never came, or vice versa. It takes a lot of humility from a coach to accept it.”

... Let alone from fans or sports writers, adds Il Napolista.

Freshness of Mind and Body

SSC Napoli v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

“[When looking at the individual data of Napoli players] we’re talking about a team that doesn’t have drops in the second half. That’s only been pegged back twice and, on the other hand, has fought back from behind in matches more often. That’s never suffered from cramp except for Mario Rui against Milan, but he was coming back from injury.

The feeling here, supported by the numbers, is we close out games as the fresher side. We believe that the less energy the side spends in winning games, the better. We prefer a player runs less and achieves his pre-determined objectives all the same. He recovers from games much faster, and puts less stress on his body. The same goes for training, not just the games. One saying that’s followed me around since I was a kid was my father’s: Why spend 50 euros for a coffee if you can pay 1 euro? That’s a key saying in our world.”

“We’re also testing out a new algorithm that tells a player, when they have the ball, how often they make the right or wrong decision,” continues Mauri. This is where Napoli’s analytics are trying to help players stay clear-headed and mentally competitive. “At the end of every game, you have a number ranging from 1 to 100. It tells you something like ‘your decision-making in this game was at a 90, while the last time another player played in your role and they played a 93. [Napoli’s centre back] Luperto is phenomenal in this area. He has never made a wrong decision. Ever.”

“To a physical trainer, or at least to our staff, it’s a lot more worrying when a player picks up an injury at the end of games. That means something was done wrong, either that he worked too much or too little in preparation. That’s happened just once with Chiriches who was out of shape from a long injury.”

Between Psychologists and Mental Coaches

AC Milan v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

“Injuries that happen earlier in games isn’t down to the muscle fatiguing and then tearing, but something elsewhere. It could be a biomechanical or posture problem. Say for example, I’ve trained a lot and slept badly, I didn’t have my back aligned straight, then I go to make an extreme movement in a match and get injured. If I had my back aligned perfectly, my posture perfect in that moment, I wouldn’t have gotten injured. Travelling also affects this a lot. There a players that are used to travelling - like the South Americans - and players who are not.”

“Psychology can also be another thing affecting players in the early phases of the game. Let’s think about Verdi last season, whistled by Napoli’s entire stadium, injuring himself just a few minutes into the game. Obviously in these cases, skills come in handy too. It makes me laugh when a coach says “I have to play psychologist too.” I laugh because that coach doesn’t have the skills. He can use common sense to not make the situation worse, but he doesn’t have the knowledge of professionals. Unfortunately in Italy we have to label the psychologist ‘a mental coach’. If I go see a psychologist, that means I have problems. But if I go see a mental coach, I’m cool. That’s a role that’s used very little in Italy, but one we’d like to bring into our staff within the next few years.”

Very Little of Training Is Training Itself

SPAL v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Mario Carlini / Iguana Press/Getty Images

“When training is spoken of, [here in Italy] it’s taken as ‘I lace my boots, I go on the pitch, and when I’m finished go home and I’m done.’ It’s not like that,” says Mauri. “There’s a work to be done before and after the session on the training pitch, that we consider fundamental. The training pitch session lasts one hour and fifteen minutes, the longest it’s been is an hour and twenty minutes. We don’t do double training sessions, because each session is done as if it were a double.”

“The player arrives to training at 9-9.30, has breakfast and starts his warm-up routine. He goes to the physiotherapist, especially if he needs some tape or some other kind of treatment. After which there’s a preparation phase in the gym. That preparation phase is something we’ve worked on a lot. In Italy, there’s this idea that I have to make you work as your physical trainer. On the contrary, we’ve looked to - and we’ve done very well here - put the responsibility on the player. We make them understand what was important for their conditioning.”

“Each player had a personalised schedule for preventative training; a schedule that obviously changes through each phase of the season, along with their injuries, et cetera. Those schedules are posted up in the gym and, every morning, we are there as a couple in the gym guiding each player through his own exercises. If at the beginning we had to insist a little to get them into the habit, now we’re almost in need of an extra member of staff to manage the entire group. Because they’re all happy, all ready and all of them come into training every day.”

“Why do they come in? Because they’ve understood there’s a use in it for them to put in this kind of work. The same changes happened at the end of training sessions. There was a time when training sessions used to be finished by a warm-down. It was a little bit of long-distance running, with a trainer in the middle of the group looking to get everyone to do their stretches. What was the result? The only guy doing stretches was the trainer himself.”

“If twenty people do the same group work, the overall benefit won’t be the same for everyone. Today that work is done in the gym, and it’s always personalised. There are those who need exercises to recalibrate their spine, others need muscle training, others breathing exercises. There are players who do an extra-half hour before or an extra-half hour after. There’s the physiotherapist, the cold baths, the hot baths, the Turkish baths. We’ve looked to organise the training centre in such a way that the day doesn’t just last for the one and a quarter hours on the pitch, but five-six hours a day. Players have their breakfast and lunch at the training centre. Their work day really lasts half the day.”

Worldwide Culture - No Weight Lifting

AS Roma v Entella - Coppa Italia Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

“There’s definitely always time off each day for a player. But we’ve educated them. We look to make them understand that how they spend their time off is always important. If you go take the dog for a walk, that’s good. If you go take the kids to school, that’s good because you’re moving. If you stay on the couch at home for five or six hours straight, you’ve come home with a clean bill of health as far as your posture, but the next day you’ll be coming in all bent up again.”

“When dividing up the work, we take into account the player’s culture. There are athletes like the Poles, who are exceptional athletes with an unbelievable work ethic. Like all those from Eastern Europe, because there the mentality has stayed the same as in the days of the ex-Soviet Union.”

“Latin players, on the other hand, need competitiveness. You can suggest anything you want to Spanish players, but always bring in the element of competition. It’s a cultural thing. In Italy, when you’re fifty years old, you go jogging. In Spain, you play badminton.”

“We’ve taken away weights from training,” insists Mauri. “A couple of weight machines that survived [the cull], we’ll make sure to take them out this coming summer too. It’s not true that Cristiano Ronaldo is a gym freak. He uses very little weights, and does almost everything with natural body training. Weight training was something born in Italy in the nineties. It’s done more harm than good, especially in football.”

“If I lift weights, I use a muscle that I’ll then use differently on the pitch. It’s the same conversation with long-distance running. Long-distance running can increase my aerobic capacity, but in reality I’m getting my muscles used to being used in a different way than I will in a match. That’s how, after having run over a long distance, you’ll then go and sprint on a pitch and injure yourself.”

‘The Future of Football Exercise Closer to NBA’ - Ancelotti

SSC Napoli v Udinese - Serie A Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

“Do you know what will happen in the future?” Ancelotti asks to close out the Il Napolista feature. “That their three [Napoli physical trainer] roles will no longer exist, or at least won’t all three exist in one club. Football is trying to be more and more like the NBA, where the player goes on the pitch for 45 minutes of high intensity sprint training and then he’s good.

The football athlete will have his own personal trainer, personal nutrionist, personal physiotherapist. There won’t be any ritiri. Already in football we know there are many players who have their own personal trainers, who’s work is sometimes done against the work scheduled by the club’s team trainers.”