Gattuso Napoli
Gennaro Gattuso hasn't taken Napoli to the heights long hoped for. Mario Taddeo/EPA.

At the time, Napoli’s decision to fire Carlo Ancelotti, one of the finest soccer coaches of his generation, and hire Gennaro Gattuso, an unproven and volatile figure with no previous link to the club, looked to be an almighty gamble. Towards the end of last season, though, some payoff was becoming apparent.

While Napoli had lost their vigour under Ancelotti, Gattuso got the blood pumping through the club’s heart again. The Sao Paulo was reinvigorated by the former Italy midfielder’s presence in the dugout as Napoli showed signs of life again. A strong finish to the 2019-20 campaign hinted at better times to come.

Such times, however, have yet to materialise with Napoli currently in sixth place, exactly where they finished last season. The Coppa Italia presented Gattuso and his players with a chance to lift some silverware, but a 3-1 defeat to Atalanta on Wednesday ended Napoli’s hopes of masking their lack of meaningful progress with a trophy.

While the Sao Paulo outfit looked to have been revitalised by Gattuso not so long ago, the club has once again fallen flat. Whatever the former AC Milan player had working at times last season is no longer effective. Many believe Napoli have to make another managerial change to stand any chance of salvaging a European place.

“We are all with the coach,” sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli recently said when asked whether the Napoli hierarchy could fire Gattuso before the end of the season. “We believe in this project and we are fighting in all competitions. Then, at the end of the season, we will draw conclusions.”

There are, however, bigger questions for Napoli to answer. This is a club that has at various points over the last few years threatened to reach the top of the Italian game. Under Maurizio Sarri, they came within just a few points of their first Scudetto since 1990. A few years before that, Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi made Napoli one of Europe’s most thrilling and entertaining teams.

Not since the days of Diego Maradona, though, have Napoli managed to take the final step. Every time Napoli get within touching distance of Juventus, they slide further away. Now, it’s the two Milan clubs leading the way at the top of Serie A, but Gattuso’s side are nowhere near the pace being set.

On paper, Napoli currently boast one of the strongest squads in Serie A. In Kalidou Koulibaly, the club possesses one of the most accomplished central defenders in the European game. Kostas Manolas has proven an effective partner to the Senegalese, and together the duo have anchored the club to 1.06 expected goals-against per 90 minutes, good for third in Serie A. In midfield, there are few central orchestrators better than Fabian Ruiz who has flourished at the Sao Paulo since arriving from Real Betis three years ago.

Lorenzo Insigne, Hirving Lozano and Piotr Zielinski are all proven at the top level while Dries Mertens continues to chip in, providing four goals and six assists this season – perhaps no longer in his prime, but an important veteran to have around. Napoli lack a true number nine to lead the line following the exit of Arkadiusz Milik to Marseille in the January transfer window, but Gattuso certainly isn’t without talent to work with.

The argument could be made that Napoli need to punch above their weight to get near the top of Serie A. Juventus are among the wealthiest soccer clubs on the planet while AC Milan and Inter are both owned by billionaire ownership consortiums. Roma have rich owners of their own. Napoli, on the other hand, don’t have this sort of financial backing.

To compete for honours, Napoli have to rely on a scouting network that has unearthed a number of gems over the years. The club has earned itself a reputation for giving second chances to players who have been chewed up and spat out by bigger, more illustrious rivals — see Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Albiol and Tiemoue Bakayoko.

As long as the financial gulf remains between Napoli and their Serie A rivals, the Sao Paulo outfit will have to be smarter in the transfer market. They will have to look in places no other team is willing to and find players who have been undervalued or overlooked by clubs with more money to spend.

It might be the case that Gattuso has already reached his ceiling as a Napoli manager. The former midfielder has long been scrutinised as a tactician as a coach and so it might take new ideas and methods to get more out of the club’s squad. But even if Napoli can find that figure, they might not be able to take the step they have been striding for the last three decades.