Luciano Spalletti had a farm, to paraphrase the old nursery rhyme in honour of the Napoli boss whose team are sweeping all before them this season.
On this farm, he had some ducks and hens, and on this farm, he had some donkeys, two ostriches and three alpacas.
On this farm, La Rimessa in Tuscany’s gentle rolling hills, he harvested olives for oil, grapes for wine and hosted a steady stream of tourists.
Luciano Spalletti is delivering on his early career promise with Napoli playing some of Europe’s most attractive football this season
And, on this farm, while still on the payroll of Inter Milan but displaced by his successor Antonio Conte, Spalletti spent two years studying the work of football’s most successful coaches and refining his own thoughts on the game. ‘In the silence of Rimessa I find new solutions as a monk in a convent, because I’m alone and I touch the depths of my soul,’ he said. Time well spent, it appears.
Since his return to football, he has led Napoli back into the Champions League and clear at the top of Italy’s Serie A.
Still unbeaten, Spalletti’s team have scored 50 goals in 17 games.
The Italian endured a difficult summer with Napoli but has galvanised the team and fans this season as they sit top of the league
Striker Victor Osimhen took his personal haul to eight in 10 with a hat-trick on Saturday. All this without breaking the bank. According to Deloitte, they do not rank among the 25 wealthiest clubs in world football.
They have slashed an estimated £10million from the wage bill, which is a credit to sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli, who replaced senior players such as Lorenzo Insigne, Kalidou Koulibaly and Fabian Ruiz with hitherto unknown gems such as Khvicha Kvaratskhelia from Georgia and South Korea international Kim Min-jae who was playing in Turkey.
If Giuntoli was the discovery of managing director Andrea Chiavelli, who hired him in 2015 after he masterminded Carpi’s four promotions from amateur football to Serie A, Spalletti was certainly the appointment of president Aurelio de Laurentiis.
De Laurentiis had tried to tempt him to Naples in the past and, when Spalletti finally reached the end of his gardening leave at Inter and agreed to succeed Gennaro Gattuso, he started the 2021-22 campaign with seven consecutive victories.
His team sit top of the league and should they avoid heavy defeat at Anfield will qualify top of their group in Europe
On the eve of the eighth game, Spalletti’s beloved Fiat Panda was stolen. They won again, but with his lucky car gone, the winning streak ended in game No 9, a goalless draw at Roma. In Naples, superstition reigns. Spalletti, a Tuscan, shrugged it off.
He was more concerned about injuries to key players, including Osimhen, and the loss of others to the Africa Cup of Nations as reasons why the club’s quest for a first scudetto since the two won in the Diego Maradona era lost its impetus.
For fans and media — even for De Laurentiis — it represented a missed opportunity and doubts surfaced about Spalletti. A banner from Napoli ultras made it clear he should leave if he wanted to see the missing Panda again. They finished third behind the two Milan clubs.
At the start of this season, bookmakers favoured AC Milan, Inter, Juventus and Roma, with Napoli available at odds as long as 18-1 for the title but Spalletti, with the help of his coaching staff, has always been a wizard when it comes to improving players.
Having endured some tough years in between his exciting spell with Roma in the 2000s he has arrived at Napoli and created a team that is capable of winning anywhere
In the first spell at Roma, he inspired the best of Francesco Totti, devising a system to maximise his quality as the false nine, and, upon his return, enabled Edin Dzeko’s prolific 39-goal season. Under his guidance, Mo Salah and Radja Nainggolan reached new levels.
At Napoli, Stanislav Lobotka and Amir Rrahmani, who played very little under Gattuso, have become immovable regulars within a year. Former Fulham midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa has been reborn and Tottenham misfit Tanguy Ndombele is finding his way again.
There are some in Italy still determined to belittle 63-year-old Spalletti because he has not won a scudetto, but he has consistently delivered success as defined by his employers.
He led Udinese into the Champions League for the first time. With Roma, he won three domestic trophies and went close to the title. He restored Inter to the Champions League after an absence of six years. He won the Russian league twice with Zenit.
Previously unknown quantities such as Khvicha Kvaratskhelia have reaffirmed Spalletti’s abilities as a manager
Always playing a beautiful, attacking style of football. It was while forging this reputation during his first spell at Roma that he came close to managing Chelsea. Spalletti was invited to meet Roman Abramovich on June 2, 2008, at the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris.
In the lobby, he bumped into his old friend Carlo Ancelotti and asked his old friend, then in charge of Milan, what he was doing there.
‘What am I doing here?’ replied Ancelotti. ‘What are you doing here?’ They both knew the answers. Chelsea appointed Luiz Felipe Scolari a week later, but within a year installed Ancelotti at Stamford Bridge, his first step out of Italy on a journey that has seen him coach some of Europe’s greatest clubs and add two Champions League titles with Real Madrid to the two he won at Milan.
Ancelotti went on from this Paris rendezvous to become the most decorated coach in the competition. Spalletti returned to Roma, where some believe that flirtation with Chelsea broke the spell of what he was building in the Italian capital.
His work did not reach its completion and perhaps he did not fulfil his potential as a coach. At least, not until now at Napoli.
With his thoughts refreshed by the tranquility of his life on the farm, he is again producing the best football in Italy and this could prove his greatest work.