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Napoli's Drone-Assisted Defense

How Maurizio Sarri is using technology to keep out goals

10Mar

When Maurizio Sarri arrived in Naples in the summer of 2015 he inherited a defense that was, for want of a better word, broken. The Partenopei shipped 54 Serie A goals in the 2014/15 campaign, condemning them to a fifth-place finish and life in the Europa League. Fast forward nine months, and Napoli have the second-best defensive record in Serie A, only bettered by league leaders Juventus - and, frankly, Gianluigi Buffon and co. are frighteningly impenetrable at the back.

With 11 clean sheets from 28 league games, goalkeeper Pepe Reina has felt the ignominy of picking the ball out of his net far less often than Rafael Cabra last time around. In their Europa League campaign, Napoli have let in just five goals in eight games and are looking one of Europe's fiercest defenses. The side now move as a collective, and understanding in the back four is the best it's been this decade in Naples. In fact, only Bayern Munich have made fewer defensive actions (tackles, clearances, blocks) than the Italian side - don't take this as an indictment of a defense that isn't working, for the most organized back lines are rarely called into action. The improvement has Napoli just three points behind Juventus; for reference, they finished a massive 24 points behind the Old Lady last term.

The secret to their change in fortunes? In part, a technique imported from Sarri's days at Empoli: a drone. The manager employs a drone to fly overhead during training to record his side's formation; defensive organization is better seen from above. It's often questioned why managers don't move up into the stands during games, and some do (before they're dragged back down to the touchline to berate their players). Elevation offers a far better perspective; the touchline means an almost 2D look at formation and the use of drones gives further choice of vantage, one that is more conducive to defensive organization. Sarri will take each player aside individually after the sessions for analysis, telling them how slight adjustments to their positioning - for overhaul is no way to plug a porous defense - can improve defensive solidity as a whole. And it's paid off.

Everton, too, have been using drones to film training at their Finch Farm academy. The Toffees' Roberto Martinez is a modern manager in every sense, from his Catalonia-Liverpudlian accent to his willingness to innovate tactically, and it comes as no surprise that he is well on top of technological advancements. The club's fortunes this season haven't been great, but for all his hyperbole - he once described Gareth Barry as 'one of the best English players ever' - many in the footballing world hold admiration for the 42-year-old's techniques. His pursuit for perfection has, in part, been his undoing this season, but that's a story for another day. According to Michael Owen, whose M7 Aerial company create drones for use in football, 'a lot of teams now are using this drone technology to go up and film training sessions so you can then literally say to people you're in the wrong position, you should be covering.'

A British man was fined in 2015 for illegally flying drones over professional football stadiums during games, but it seems only a matter of time before drones are allowed inside the grounds, either as versatile mobile cameras for television broadcasters or as tactical aids. Having said that, team shape will soon be mappable thanks to the use of player trackers which, as they become more sophisticated, will be deemed more appropriate for match day and implemented duly. But drones are an effective method for now, as they give a more organic look at formation than trackers and an honest picture of what the opposition are doing in response to the tactical formation being deployed. The use of drones reflects a snowballing trend toward more intelligent analysis of football training sessions. Technology, like Catapult's tracking devices, allows coaches to receive and manipulate information in real-time, on everything from a player's average speed to their recovery time following an exertion. Don't expect to see training grounds aswarm with drones, developments in wearable tech will likely surpass a drone's capabilities, but Sarri should be recognized for his commitment to tech and the seemingly miraculous results. 

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