Napoli’s European Explosion

With an incredibly dominant start to their 2022-23 campaign, SSC Napoli have made it clear that they are fed up with coming up short. 

It all seemed so dire for Napoli just a few months ago. Kalidou Koulibaly concluded his social media farewell, writing, “Now I feel I have to leave and get back into the game: it’s time for a new adventure.”

In fact, it would be a new adventure not just for him — but also for Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne. Then the pain hit down to the nerve, when Dries Mertens, the club’s all-time leading goal scorer, was let go. All hope was surely lost when the midfield engine of Fabian Ruiz was sold to Paris Saint-Germain. Gutted. Partenopei fans had not been so heartbroken since Diego Maradona left the Gulf of Naples.

This didn’t bode well for enigmatic club president Aurelio De Laurentiis, who had recently come under fire (again) with the club’s ultras for another failed Scudetto run: “ADL? Always the same. Don’t talk, shut your trap,” the banner read in the center of Naples last May.

Napoli, always the bridesmaid, never the bride. In fact, they often say exactly the same thing for their manager, Luciano Spalletti. Aside from his success in Russia, the Tuscan tactician has led his teams to several completions in the top four, but the Scudetto continues to elude him. His Roma were very close — three times finishing in second before his return came to an ugly conclusion with Francesco Totti.

Was there hope? It was gloomy, even for the most devout tifosi of the Maradona stadium. Napoli underwent an exodus of team pillars, and deep into the summer, had only signed prospects or potential talents. Only in the Russian league had their coach won any bragging rights. It all seemed so dark.

The Talent

ssc napoli

And then, a glimmer of light shone as the new boys started to play. The signings trickled in over the summer, beginning with Kim Min-jae. With Tottenham failing to get the Korean center back over the line, Napoli swooped in. His one-on-one predictive ability quickly put attackers on notice, being outpaced and outmuscled. Koulibaly’s departure still hurt, but maybe Napoli sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli was on to something other than just slashing the wage bill. Kim, after just a few rounds, won Serie A player of the month in September.

Giovanni Simeone may not have been a player that fans exulted over two years ago, but his life changes and maturity during his time at Hellas Verona turned him into one of the most interesting strikers in the league. He was scoring screamers from outside the box, as well as doing the little things inside of it. With Victor Osimhen on and off the medical table, the 27-year-old has already scored six goals, including the game winner against Milan at the San Siro in September.

Leo Ostigard’s purchase price of €5 million should be seen as a steal, taking the 22-year-old away after being unused for several seasons by Graham Potter’s Brighton. The 6-foot tall center back now shares responsibilities alongside Kim, with Mathias Olivera rotating off of Mario Rui after the Uruguayan’s five seasons for Getafe. A revolutionized backline, and they’re still under 10 goals allowed after 12 rounds.

Another player marginalized by a Premier League club, Frank Anguissa’s purchase option was exercised after being an influential force in the midfield following last season’s loan. The same could be said for loanee Tanguy Ndombele. The verticalization added another dimension to Spalletti’s midfield, but we’ll be getting to that.

On top of the obvious sadness surrounding their departures, the harsh truth was the goals were drying up between Insigne and Mertens. Whispers mentioned an Italian international from Sassuolo, who were notoriously tough negotiators. It took a heavy hand to get Giacomo Raspadori to switch green for blue. The diminutive force on the left-center of Domenico Berardi and Gianluca Scamacca, “Jack’s’’ ten goals and five assists made him one of the most balanced young players in the league. The 22-year-old’s transfer cost could rise to €35 million, but as they say, you get what you pay for.

And then sometimes, you just get darn lucky. The best for last, the final piece of the puzzle, the Georgian sensation. Nickname him what you please, the most intriguing player in world football is now Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. He’s the most viewed player on Transfermarkt, and his value has skyrocketed since joining from Dinamo Batumi for €10 million. Add at least an extra zero onto the end there, if you want his current price.

So where does the current top-of-the-table status, the undefeated run, the 50 goals scored between Serie A and the Champions League, the 4-1 thrashing of Liverpool and dismantling of Ajax, actually come from? From a brilliant manager pulling it all together. Now that we know the players, let’s look into the schematic, and invest some time in learning the man behind the X’s and O’s.

The Play

Luciano Spalletti

The 4-2-3-1 is a system Spalletti built his bread and butter on, and this season you’ll even see the 4-3-3, which is a byproduct of the quality he now possesses. But the true subplot is in his approach rather than the formation.

Following his breakup with Inter Milan in 2019, Spalletti took that time to reflect on his methods and find a new energy within himself on his farm in Tuscany.

Although he might not be the theatrical coach on the sidelines we might expect in Italian football, his drive comes from deep down.

“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,” Spalletti poetically told the Daily Mail.

With the boss demanding perfection, each approach allows a bit more liberty to the wingers, given their work rate, as well as their threat to get in behind the outside defenders. With his new sense of calm, either setup allows him to attack, control possession, collapse into a mid-to-low block, and ultimately dictate the game.

“There is no one solution for all situations, there are more than one, so you have to test them all and put them into practice,” Spalletti mentioned before the Champions League return fixture against Liverpool.

Supplementing the big additions across the back line, Amir Rrahmani has become a veteran in the heart of the defense, while Rui’s calmness and ball playing abilities provide an unexpected channel for the Azzurri to bypass the lines.

Anguissa’s box-to-box style surges into space, wins the ball back, and stretches out the opponent’s back four. Piotr Zielinski has been unsung thus far, but it’s his drive from a deeper position, carrying the ball central and into advanced areas that has made the front three (and sometimes five) click so well.

In the collapse, he drops back into the same line as Stanislav Lobotka, who has emerged as a top defensive midfielder, if not improving upon the departure of Ruiz. This allows Napoli to play tight, organized shapes out of defensive positions, working to progress the ball rather than rushing an escape.

When the attack does begin, Napoli can overload through the center, or exploit the wings due to “Kvarat’s” trickery matched with sheer speed. Just about every move he makes and goal he scores is worthy of the highlight reel, and if you haven’t seen him make a mockery of Liverpool yet, rewind those clips.

On the opposite flank, Hirving “Chucky” Lozano’s maturity has doubled up for a threatening right wing, as he swaps time with the dependable Matteo Politano. With Raspadori mixed in as the link-up forward, he finds the goal one way or another, as Ajax found out when they left him open on their far post.

Osimhen then represents the constant threat, with the tall, powerful forward possessing blistering speed, who can still pull a rabbit out of his hat. Just ask Chris Smalling.

Napoli are like a pride of lions who prowl in the dark, waiting patiently, until the prey is caught off guard. May that be from five attackers pushed forward, a strong rout through the midfield, a long ball over the top, or a manager whose sage wisdom exudes onto his team. And now having won Champions League Group A and terrifying the rest of Italy, Spalletti’s unit is playing the best football in Europe. And they smell blood.

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