Napoli’s season started with the departure of several key players, and the exits of Kalidou Koulibaly, Fabian Ruiz, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens left fans of Napoli tense ahead of the current campaign, but head coach Luciano Spalletti has done something truly special.
“It’s time we got rid of this cliché about defensive Italian football,” he stated – and wow, has he done just that.
Quick, slick, almost mesmerising football has returned to the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium – hailing staggering claims from some of footballs greatest minds.
Both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have suggested that Napoli are the best team in Europe, with the Italian side running away with the Serie A title and becoming a more credible Champions League bet by the day – with one foot already in the quarter-finals.
It must be said, they are doing it in unimaginable fashion too. Napoli are the top scorers in Serie A by 13 goals, and a win tonight would see them leading the goalscoring charts on Europe’s biggest stage.
Their list of statement wins includes a 5-1 drubbing of Juventus, turning over Liverpool 4-1, and beating Ajax 6-1 in their own backyard. They are ruthlessly outclassing some of Europe’s biggest powerhouses in every department.
Not since the days of Diego Maradona has Napoli ever won a domestic title, let alone play football as special as this.
So, how are Napoli doing this? Who are their key players to look out for, and how has Spalletti got them playing football of such beauty and excellence?
The name on everybody’s mind, and the man of the moment – is Victor Osimhen. The Nigerian stands at 6’1” tall and spearheads Gli Azzurri’s attack, but his outstanding strength and height isn’t the only weapon in his artillery.
His positioning, blistering pace, and ability to time his runs to perfection allows the forward to get in the best areas possible, hence why he has the highest xG in Serie A (15.1) and the most goals (19). He has also assisted his teammates on five occasions and netted twice in Europe.
His partner in crime is Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. The Georgian has taken defences by storm this year, charting 13 goals and registering 15 assists. The wide player is known for finding pockets of space and inviting defenders into 1v1 battles which he excels in.
Poland international Piotr Zielinski supports the attacking trio, with Osimhen and Kvaratskhelia often selected with Lozano or Politano. Zielinski is a key player when it comes to sniffing chances out, with a healthy 6 goals and 9 assists in all competitions.
With the attention on the attack, defensive midfielders Anguissa and Lobokta are underrated. Having two defensive-minded players helps Napoli especially with their intense press.
Their midfield is well balanced and helps Napoli win the ball between the lines, and they also have the technical ability of Ndombele off the bench to take time on the ball and keep possession.
Their defence is solid, with Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Amir Rrahmani, Kim Min-Jae and Mário Rui usually sitting infront of Alex Meret. Kim Min-Jae has filled Koulibaly’s shoes admirably – averaging the highest number of passes in the league.
Spalletti sets up his team in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, but it becomes a 2-3-2-3 when in possession and building from the back.
The system relishes short passing and creating space – but Napoli certainly aren’t afraid to call on the frontline. Victor Osimhen’s positioning and pace makes him superb at getting in-behind from a long ball, and his stature makes him a fantastic out-ball too.
The 4-3-3 converts perfectly to a 2-3-2-3, because when the opposition sit back, they have the option of both centre backs, and slightly higher are both full-backs and a CDM. When pressed high – they can hit big target man Osimhen, who isn’t isolated because he has two midfielders and two wingers close to him.
When dominating a game, Napoli play a 2-3-5 with two centre-backs for security, two full backs and a midfielder for support, and five up front. The creativity of Zielinski and Kvaratskhelia make attacking a lot easier for Spalletti – and for a brilliant watch.
Napoli’s league dominance means that the league could be wrapped up in April or early May. If they make the semi-finals – they will be able to fully prioritise the Champions League.
It hasn’t always been plain sailing for the loyal fans of Napoli though. They suffered relegation in 1998 and declared bankruptcy in 2004.
The door was all but closed on Napoli, until something amazing happened. Aurelio De Laurentiis bought the club with a promise, financial stability and a sense of redemption.
The first job was getting out of Serie C. Napoli fans hadn’t just stuck with the club through tough times, but their love had grown stronger. Even in the third division they had higher attendances than some Serie A clubs.
Bit by bit, they climbed back to the top-flight of Italian football. They haven’t experienced anything like the current moment since the days of Diego Maradona.
Manager Luciano Spalletti said: “Playing a Champions League game is a celebration,” and it really is for Napoli, a club with a unique history like no others.