Vendetta? Egomania? Masochism?
Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis' decision to fire Carlo Ancelotti less than an hour after his club had qualified for the Champions League knockout round may well be a function of each of the above. Or, as those close to the club suggest, it might simply be an attempt to cut losses and hit the reset button, rather than throw good money after bad. If it's the latter, it's ham-fisted and miscalculated.
Ancelotti leaves Napoli after 16 months in charge. In his first campaign, he finished second and only failed to make the round of 16 in the Champions League because of a tiebreaker (Liverpool and Napoli were level on points and goal difference) and an Alisson last-ditch save. This season, he reached the knockout phase (taking four of six points from the European champions and inflicting their only loss in any competition since early May) but in Serie A they sit in seventh place, eight points outside the Champions League places and a whopping 17 off the top.
Was he fired because De Laurentiis placed more emphasis on the league position and had lost faith in Ancelotti's ability to turn it around this season? The short answer: Yes, but there's more to it than that. As well as a parallel (if an imperfect one) with Mauricio Pochettino's departure from Spurs.
Two factors, according to individuals familiar with the situation, were key in Ancelotti's firing. The first was the contractual situation of a number of first-team players. Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon become free agents in June, with Elseid Hysaj, Arkadiusz Milik, Nikola Maksimovic and Piotr Zielinski to follow in 2021. Then there's Kalidou Koulibaly and Allan, who have longer-term contracts but who have been promised a move in the summer. Napoli have the fifth-highest wage bill in Serie A and if they've been profitable over the past few seasons, a lot of it is down to the club's ability to control costs. Renewing veterans like those cited above was always going to be expensive, but the hope was that a strong domestic campaign and a Champions League windfall next year might have made it possible to keep some of the stars and reload, rather than rebuild.
The other factor was the "player mutiny" after the home game vs. FC Salzburg on Nov. 5. The previous weekend, after a defeat to Roma, De Laurentiis had ordered that the team be sequestered away at the training ground in a sort of boot camp for a week. Ancelotti had said previously he didn't think such measures (known as "ritiro" in Italian) were effective, but he nevertheless ordered them to sleep at the training ground for a week.
After the Salzburg game, the players rebelled, refused to return to camp and went home, leaving Ancelotti and his staff as the only ones to spend the night at the training ground. De Laurentiis was furious not least because his son, who works at the club, had endured a verbal altercation with some players after ordering them back to the training ground. De Laurentiis felt humiliated and disrespected and believed Ancelotti should have been stronger with his players. The fact that he had obeyed club orders wasn't enough; it was felt he should have done more to force the players to comply.
These two factors, one financial and one emotional, weighed very heavily. So, too, did the simple economics of Champions League revenue distribution. It's convoluted and complicated but by simply advancing to the Round of 16 and no further, Napoli will earn anywhere between €50m and €60m depending on the "market pool" that itself depends on the results of other Italian clubs. They could, of course, earn more -- potentially up to €120m -- depending how far they get in the competition.
Napoli recognized that their chances of going further in Europe were higher with Ancelotti because nobody has won more Champions League titles than he has. Equally, though, they feared it would come at a cost of qualifying for Europe next season. They lost faith in his ability to bridge the gap and finish in the top four and figured they had a better chance of doing so with another manager (Rino Gattuso, who was appointed Wednesday, as it turned out). So they turned it into a binary cost-benefit analysis. Qualifying for next season's Champions League (and getting a guaranteed €35m, or thereabouts) versus advancing further as a second seed this season (which could earn them another €60m if they won it and things went their way, or an additional big fat zero if they went out in the Round of 16).
That was the heart of the club's reasoning. De Laurentiis may be a colorful, irascible character, but he knows his numbers. He genuinely tried to strengthen the squad in the summer, with the second highest net spend in Serie A to bring in the likes of Kostas Manolas, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Alex Meret, Chucky Lozano and Elif Elmas. He was ambitious, as was Ancelotti who famously (and curiously) said "we're here to win, not to go and braid our dolls' hair. We can win the title." But once he became convinced that a top-four finish (let alone the scudetto) was unlikely with Ancelotti, De Laurentiis cut his losses.
The "mutiny" only accelerated matters, as did the contract negotiations with the want-away players. Suddenly, the prospect of blowing up the team and rebuilding became more appealing. Koulibaly and Allan are both 28, but should fetch well over €120m next summer. You'll get nothing back for Mertens and Callejon unless you sell them in January (which is a possibility), but you'll get their contracts off the books, freeing up some €30m in salaries, which is nearly a third of Napoli's wage bill. And in De Laurentiis' mind, you don't need a manager earning €9m ($10m) a season to do that. Better to pay off Ancelotti -- his contract had a "break clause" in May -- to the tune of $5m and bring in Gattuso, who costs a quarter of that.
Results were disappointing in Serie A. Performances were mixed, but if you buy into metrics like Expected Goals, they were due a bounce: they ranked fourth in xG difference. The "boot camp" decision and subsequent mutiny, with De Laurentiis taking legal action against his own players, no doubt didn't help much (they went six games without a win after), nor did the players' uncertainty over their future and their dwindling contracts. Neither of those were down to Ancelotti and once those issues got resolved, you would have expected the team to kick it up a notch.
Ancelotti is a big boy. Rather than hit the reset button now, De Laurentiis could have worked a deal to keep him around until the end of the season, allowing him at least a crack at the Champions League knockout phase since he played a big part in getting them there. Sure, Napoli were never going to be favorites, but clubs like Ajax, Roma and Monaco each reached the semifinals in the past three seasons. Surely this Napoli team, on paper, had at least a shot of doing the same? And perhaps, in so doing, give this generation of players who, lest we forget, gave Napoli fans more to cheer than at any time in their history with the exception of the Maradona era, one last crack at something special? Not to mention the fans, who can sometimes be overbearing in their passion, but who ultimately just want to see their team compete?
Football is a business, and De Laurentiis made a business decision (or, likely, even earlier since his mind seemed made up). That doesn't mean it was the correct decision. Because when it's partly driven by emotion, it's not purely a business decision. And because football is more than a cost-benefit analysis, let alone one infected by ego.