Napoli Got the Big Things RightBy: Neil | September 16th, 2013
After three rounds, Napoli has a 100% record and, pending Roma’s match against Parma, could be all alone in first place. Of course, three rounds is not a measuring stick, especially with an easier schedule featuring two home games against mid table opposition. But one trend among Napoli fans, and neutrals, is starting to emerge: everyone believes this side can only get better. It’s a feeling that just wasn’t there with Mazzarri. No matter how good the results were — and some of the results were great — there was always the question about the long term. That is starting to disappear as Napoli’s roster is well stocked with players who are in their prime or approaching it. A quick evaluation of last summer’s personnel movement shows that Napoli got the biggest things right: replacing a departing manager, and replacing a departing talismanic striker. More detail after the jump.
After about three months it appears Benitez was the perfect choice to replace Mazzarri. All the hesitations some fans had over the summer — his one spell at Inter was terminated early, his reputation for being distant from the players at times — have all disappeared. On giornata 3 he showed how to properly tinker with a side to rest players, and even though the breakthrough goal wasn’t until the 70th minute (and arguably required Hamsik’s introduction) it was a comfortable win with Atalanta getting just one good chance and, more generally, not really challenging Napoli with their overly defensive approach.
Napoli caught lightning in a bottle with Benitez, who probably deserved to stay on at Chelsea but made way for the return of Jose Mourinho. Once it was clear that Mazzarri wasn’t returning, Napoli went out and got the best European manager of all those who were available. It was a perfect coup, and De Laurentiis calls it the most important signing of the summer with good reason.
The other summer headache was how to replace a striker who would guarantee 25 or more goals a season, many of them winning matches or saving Napoli from a slightly embarrassing loss. It’s too early to suggest that Higuain will be as good as Cavani, but the signs are there that he was the best available signing. When you look at Cavani valued at $65m and Bale valued at $100m, suddenly Higuain seems like great value at $37m. He has the qualities that Cavani did – mobility, work rate, and a nose for finishing, but perhaps not quite to the same degree. He also has the same enthusiasm for the city of Naples that Cavani did when he first arrived. Higuain also looks settled in Rafa’s 4-2-3-1 formation — the same one that Real Madrid used with Mourinho — so there’s not going to be a one or two year period where the star signing underachieves while acclimatizing himself to new surroundings. In short, after naming a new manager the next most important move was replacing Cavani and Napoli got that one right as well.
Other, smaller personnel moves have even worked out. Reina looks like gold between the posts, and the only downside is that he’s not likely to return. If he has no future at Liverpool, and Simon Mignolet has started the season brilliantly, then Liverpool will want to cash in while Reina’s value remains high. According to rumours Barcelona have their eye on Reina to replace the departing Victor Valdes at season’s end.
Callejon is a gem on the right wing, and he offers yet another attacking weapon in addition to Hamsik/Higuain/Insigne. I don’t think he will keep up his goal a game pace all season, but his fitness levels are high and his movements are intelligent. The only reason Mertens will struggle is because he’s competing against world class players for playing time.
To finish off, Napoli fans with their usual love and concern for the team are looking for problems, and simply not finding any. The players are happy, even the ones who are not playing as much as they like, there’s depth in the squad – even in defence which may require a little more tinkering in January, and Benitez is committed to giving everyone a role on the team and making them feel valued.
Of course, more difficult opposition awaits and the struggles will begin shortly. But right now I can’t see any negatives….. can you?