Italy

Napoli flying high under Spalletti with Serie A title their destination

After a few indifferent seasons, Luciano Spalletti has got Napoli flying high this campaign. The Naples team is top of the league after 12 match days as well as top of their Europa League group with two games left. They stand unbeaten in Serie A with 10 wins and two draws. Behind this success is manager Luciano Spalletti who has had an instant impact in his first season. This Napoli side is notably well organized and balanced under the 62 year old. In addition, the atmosphere around the club has changed a lot for the better as he appears to have reinstalled belief in players and the fans that Napoli can be contenders. 

After a two year sabbatical, Spalletti is back and has Napoli playing arguably their best football in recent history. His side shapes up generally in a 4-2-3-1 formation and plays high pressing, aggressive, attacking football. They are as adept in playing possession-based football as they are ruthless in counterattacks, especially with Osimhen leading the line but more on him later. We have seen time and time again that the foundation of success is the defence. Spalletti has not only made sure that his side doesn’t leak goals from the back but has made Napoli the strongest defensive unit in the league. Collectively they have only conceded four goals in the league and the way they defend is as impressive as their defensive stats.

Gli Azzurri play with a very high defensive line with the centre-back pairing lingering around the halfway line. They try to shut down their opponent’s attacks quickly and high up the pitch. Spalletti wants to keep the opponents far away from his goal and his system is working wonders. Napoli has the lowest average in the league for shots on target conceded per game at 2.67 alongside Torino. Kalidou Koulibaly is crucial for Spalletti’s defensive system to work. The Senegalese’s role is to close down opponents aggressively when the ball is played between Napoli’s defence and midfield and also when the ball is played in behind, which happens often against high defensive lines. This role suits Koulibaly perfectly because of his pace and strength and that’s why he is again in the conversation for the best defender in Europe. The other centre-half, Amir Rahmani acts as the last man and plays the sweeper role or libero as they say in Italy. Rahmani has been a calming presence in Napoli’s backline and has formed a solid centre-back partnership alongside Koulibaly. 

Moving up the field, Fabian Ruiz and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa form Napoli’s first-choice double pivot. Spalletti’s Napoli has a great balance between attack and defence and it’s the two central midfielders who are responsible for that. Ruiz and Anguissa coordinate well and remain in close proximity to each other. They are both comfortable performing the actions that come with the central midfielder role- screening the centre backs, dropping deep to link up play, etc.  However, Anguissa tends to focus more on the defensive burden, leaving Ruiz to the creative responsibility which has made their partnership work so effectively. 

Anguissa has been a revelation for Napoli this season since moving from Fulham on loan

The man on loan from Fulham, Anguissa has already become a vital player for Spalletti. He is the lungs of the team and works non-stop to win the ball back by closing down players or cutting passing lanes. He is among the best in the league for interceptions. The Cameroonian is a decent passer and also makes progressive runs with the ball as he is a great dribbler. With most of the defensive work done by Anguissa, Ruiz has been shining this season with his passing. The Spaniard is key for Napoli’s possession play and leads the league for most passes. He links up Napoli’s defence and attack very well and can play defence splitting passing through the lines or over the top. Both Ruiz and Anguissa linger just outside the opposition’s box during sustained attacks and are capable of belters. Ruiz has already curled in three goals from the range whilst Anguissa has come close but still to score.

Napoli builds up in a 2-4-4 shape. They either build up in wide areas with the full-backs heavily involved or through the centre with one of the CM dropping deep to link up with the central defenders. This shape allows Napoli to switch the play comfortably and also tire their opponents down by keeping possession. When building attacks from wide areas, the inverted wingers work in coordination with the full-backs. If the winger cuts inside, the full-backs provide the width and if the winger stays wide, the full-backs get in half-spaces to play crosses in the box, mostly for Osimhen. However, the skipper, Insigne plays with most positional freedom, often popping up in dangerous areas. When playing through vertical lines, the attacking midfielder looks for receiving the ball on the turn and then quickly release the cutting-in wingers or the striker. 

Osimhen has become fundamental to Napoli’s attacks. The club record €70 million striker is finally proving that he is worth his transfer fees after being unlucky with a shoulder injury and Covid last season. The Nigerian can hold up the play, run in behind, and also link up with teammates in tight areas. The no.9 already has 9 goals this season however, his finishing can be a bit frantic at times. Osimhen is a complete menace for opposition defenders and can create problems even when he is not scoring, just like the two penalties he forced against Bologna. The connection between Insigne and Osimhen has been brilliant for Napoli this season. They both are also the main counter-attacking threat for the team and look for each other in those situations. During counterattacks, Osimhen may also drag wide to get on the ball, which creates space in central areas for the wingers to attack.  

Osimhen has found form at Napoli and become a vital part of their team

Napoli’s attack is well stocked too. Mertens and Lozano had a slow start to the season because of injuries but are great options to come fill in at the attacking positions with the Mexican Lozano looking to become a regular starter. Elmas can come in as the attacking midfielder as well or at wide left giving Spalletti options from the bench. Up front, Andrea Petagna is not the same as Osimhen but he is being used to manage the Nigerian’s workload and offers something different when games are tight.

The only real issue that Spalletti has is that the depth in defence is not as good for the Partenopei as other areas. Kostas Manolas and Juan Jesus are the backup centre back options but Napoli can look vulnerable without Koulibaly as they did in the draw against Verona when the Senegalese was serving his red card suspension. Jesus can also fill in at left-back too and Malciut can come in at right-back but there is a significant drop in quality when Napoli misses someone from their preferred back four, also considering the balance in the centre back pairing of Koulibaly and Rahmani. Another worry for Napoli would be the African Cup of Nations, which will make them miss three of their most important players in Koilabily, Anguissa, and Osimhen for up to 5 game weeks after boxing day. 

There is a chance for this Napoli team to do something really special. With Juve well off the pace this season, Napoli’s main competition for the Scudetto will come from Milan. More from the red side as the Rossoneri are also unbeaten in the league and joint top, they are also in a later stage of development as a team as it’s Pioli’s third season in charge opposed to Napoli’s first under Spalletti. If Napoli can somewhat maintain the standards they have set themselves in the league and weather the upcoming storms, Gli Azuri can lay their hands on the Scudetto 32 years after they last won it with Maradona. What a tribute would that be to the man they renamed their stadium after last December.

Piece by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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