Following 24 years of coaching in Italy’s lower leagues, Maurizio Sarri steered Empoli to Serie A promotion in the 2013/14 season. His first season in the top flight saw him secure an impressive fifteenth place finish for the Tuscan club, and led to an astonishing summer move to Napoli, replacing the outgoing Rafael Benitez who was on his way to Real Madrid.
Much has been made of the improvement in Naples under this relatively unknown coach, but the work of his successor at Empoli – the even less recognisable Marco Giampaolo – has gone largely unnoticed. This season could have been a disaster, especially after Sarri took two of Empoli’s brightest talents with him to Naples - midfielder Mirko Valdifiori and wingback Elseid Hysaj. Ignoring the setbacks, the new boss has not only steadied the ship, but has taken Empoli to another level.
After back-to-back defeats in the opening two games of the campaign, the situation looked bleak for Giampaolo. But when Sarri returned to Tuscany in round three, his Napoli side could only manage a 2-2 draw and Empoli have continued to improve ever since. Aided by the goals of veteran striker Massimo Maccarone, the Azzurri were even considered outsiders for a Europa League spot earlier this season, having risen to seventh place in Serie A by January.
Since then, results have slightly fallen away and at the time of writing, the club sits in eleventh. But Empoli continue to defy expectations. According to Titanbet Sports Betting the betting odds for them to win the match vs Juventus are 11/1. The loss of Valdifiori and Hysaj was further compounded when Fiorentina and Juventus loanees, Matias Vecino and Daniele Rugani, returned to their parent clubs, but Empoli seamlessly transitioned, bringing in replacements and softening the blow with apparent ease.
Rugani was swapped for the experience of Andrea Costa from bankrupt Parma, whilst the club also secured the services of Leandro Paredes, a promising midfielder from AS Roma. The promotion to the first team of Piotr Zielinski and Vincent Laurini has also ensured that the team have not only continued to compete, but have improved on last season’s form.
Before Vecino and Rugani, Empoli had taken both Claudio Marchisio and Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus in order to gain experience. Both of these players added vital talent to an Empoli squad that was playing in Europe for the first and only time in the 2007/08 season. The fact that the bigger clubs in Italy remain keen to send their young players to Empoli is testament to the nurturing environment that they provide.
Moreover, the conveyor belt of youth products emerging from Empoli’s own academy continues, with Riccardo Saponara and Lorenzo Tonelli constantly being linked with summer moves to Italy’s premier clubs. This is unsurprising, as the club not only boasts one of the best youth academies in Italy, it is one of the best in Europe, ranked among the top 30 in terms of the number of players who have left as professionals.
Instead of bemoaning their loss of talent in recent years, the Tuscan club has set up a sustainable model. The emphasis is on looking inwards and strengthening the collective, enabling the club to consistently produce talent and achieve their aim of becoming a regular fixture in Serie A. It is this ideal that has allowed Empoli to recover from the loss of their coach and talented players, something which would have seen other teams crumble.
A constant cycle of producing and selling players is not the only issue with which the club has had to contend. Located just off the main railway line from Pisa to Florence, Empoli is an industrial town of just 50,000 inhabitants. Despite being just 12 miles away from Tuscan rivals Fiorentina, Empoli harbour a passionate fan base. Those fans measure success not just in terms of results on the field, but also by the number of successful players produced within the academy.
Nurturing local born talent such as the highly rated Tonelli is emblematic of a club that is proud to be an expression of the local community. Reinforcing the idea of collective ‘Empolese’ strength, the local Corsi family – majority shareholders at the club and one of the first to introduce a salary cap – have recruited investors and sponsors that are exclusively Tuscan.
This pride negates the impact of having a historically more ‘prestigious’ club as their neighbour, and Empoli work hard to ensure that ticket prices remain low and that the players are integrated in the town. This ‘family’ ideal further unites supporters and ties them to their team, something that is lacking at rivals Fiorentina and remains a bone of contention among Viola fans.
The owners are also looking to the future, having secured funding to rebuild their Castellani stadium, which is currently owned by the local council like most others in Italy. They have approved plans which will help Empoli – the only club in Tuscany never to have gone bankrupt – generate income from ticket sales and sponsorship. The construction model will follow that of Udinese’s Stadio Friuli, which will allow the stands to remain open even during the renovations.
This season’s overachievement on the field has once again sparked talk of bigger clubs looking to recruit Empoli’s coach, but thus far, Giampaolo has resisted any interest. “It bothers me that I should be linked to other teams,” Giampolo told the Italian press, “I don't read the papers because I don't want them to condition me”. Indeed, the Italian tactician’s focus lies solely with Empoli: “I'm focused on our objective. The future is built in the present. These stories don't affect me and don't interest me. I have to repay the club for their faith in me, only then shall we sit down and discuss my contract.”
Whether this cycle of renewal continues in the summer remains to be seen. But one thing seems certain; Empoli – a club built upon fierce local pride – refuse to become victims of their own success.
Follow Chloe Beresford on Twitter: @ChloeJBeresford