The club makes their first top flight appearance since 2008 thanks to a second place finish in Serie B last season.
Since 1986, the Azzurri have been a yo-yo club, moving back and forth between the top two divisions of Italian calcio. However, due to their small size and budget, their longest spell in Serie A has only been three years.
As recently as two seasons ago, however, the club was in danger of dropping out of Serie B and was saved thanks to three dramatic late goals in a relegation playoff match against Vicenza. The next season they made a vast improvement that included an appearance in the promotion playoffs, but failed to advance. In 2013-2014, they left nothing to chance by finishing behind Palermo.
In the club’s first European appearance in 2007, the Azzurri relied on a number of loaned and co-owned players from larger Serie A clubs to remain competitive in multiple competitions. Players like Ignazio Abate and Claudio Marchisio played for Empoli in their ultimately fruitless quest in the Europa League.
The strength of this club lies in its front line. Massimo “Big Mac” Maccarone signed permanently with Empoli this offseason. Coming off a 15 goal and 12 assist season, the club needs him to continue creating and scoring goals this season. The 35-year-old, however, will miss likely the next month with an injury.
Fellow 35-year-old forward Francesco Tavano led the club last season with 20 goals. He also reached 100 for his Empoli career last season.
Bringing youth to the front line is Simone Verdi, who is co-owned by Torino and Milan but is loaned to the club. Verdi was called up to the Italian U-21 squad this summer and is highly regarded as a withdrawn forward/playmaker for the club.
Emanuele Rovini also returns to boost the midfield. Rovini is co-owned by Empoli and Udinese, so if he performs well this season Empoli will have a chance to retain him.
To simply survive this season, the club is adopting a similar technique of taking on loan a number of rising stars in other clubs and combining them with some successful veterans.
To support the veteran forwards, the club has constructed a young and fast midfield. They recently acquired on loan three Uruguayan U-20 internationals, Diego Laxalt (Inter), Rodrigo Aguirre (Udinese) and Matias Vecio (Fiorentina). All are looking for consistent playing time to gain time back at their parent clubs.
Maybe the most important loan, however, is Hellas Verona defender Matteo Bianchetti. The Italian U-21 international captain came from Inter’s youth academy before signing with Hellas, and spent last season on loan with Spezia. He will have the incentive to play well with an eye towards the “other” Azzurri squad.
Another intriguing acquisition was Luigi Sepe, on loan from Napoli. The Naples native made his first first-team appearance at age seventeen and is regarded as a potential future first-team keeper for the senior team.
The biggest departure for the squad is Mirko Eramo, who made 14 appearances with the senior team last season but is on loan to Sampdoria.
Coaching this team is 55-year-old Maurizio Sarri. He has been a manager for so long that during his first managerial job with Stia, Sampdoria won its only scudetto. Although he has been managing in Italy for 24 years, this will be his first season managing a Serie A club.
In his first two seasons with Empoli he led them to the playoffs but staying in Serie A may be his greatest challenge. If he survives until the end of the season, it will also tie his longest stint as the manager of the same club. He was the manager of Sansovino from 2000-2003.
Last season Sarri liked to play in a 4-3-1-2 formation but having good young wingers with older strikers may necessitate a new formation. Verdi’s continued development may tempt Sarri to place him as a pivot in the midfield with the team playing a modified 4-3-3 or another formation that will allow his wingers to create opportunities.
The Azzurri enter the season having beaten Sassuolo and lower division teams in the preseason, and their first few games are not incredibly daunting. The first home matches are Roma and Milan but if they can grab a few points on the road, they could set themselves up for survival.
For a small club like Empoli, survival in Serie A will always be tough. However, they have a good mix of proven veterans and exciting young players. If their key players stay healthy and a few of the loanees excel, they will survive to play another season in Serie A. However, the margin of error is thin.
This club has a thin margin of error, and to expect Big Mac and Tavano to score 35 goals total against better defences is quite the stretch. Their goal total will drop, but enough of the midfield players on loan will develop to make this team dangerous at times. Their defense will be stout enough and they will find enough goals from a mix of players that they can barely avoid the drop. However, Sarri probably won’t last the year and Empoli will be looking at the same situation this time next year.
Where will they will finish? Relegation candidates, 17th.