Even the very best Napoli sides of the last 30 years have been caveated with falling short.
The glorious team built by Maurizio Sarri in the mid-2010s had the rest of Europe drooling and probably was deserving of a title for their brilliance. This being Napoli, they crossed 91 points in 2017/18 and still finished second – something that had never been done before.
It is this recent history of not making that final step to silverware that makes many reluctant to predict the current outfit as Serie A favourites – even though they are already five points clear at the top.
The fact is, however, that Luciano Spalletti has assembled a brilliant side that are not only unbeaten in Serie A but are also ripping up the Champions League and comfortably moved into the knockout rounds.
If not now, then when can Napoli be tipped to secure their first post-Diego Maradona Scudetto?
Another week, another crushing victory
There was something almost cruel in the manner Napoli dismantled Sassuolo back on Serie A Matchday 12. For a team that had already conceded three goals in a match three times this season, and lost two of their previous three going into the meeting, to come up against one as rampant as Napoli was a brutal assignment for Alessio Dionisi’s men.
Equally you can argue that Sassuolo dealt with the Partenopei as poorly as you could imagine. They overcommitted their midfield in attacking scenarios, which inevitably meant that once the ball was turned over, the likes of Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Stanislav Lobotka has acres of room to progress into. The defending of space in and around their penalty area too was horrible to witness, with Napoli’s third coming via Khvicha Kvaratskhelia ghosting between centre-back and full-back to tuck away a chance.
This should not detract from Napoli’s brilliance at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona that day, though. Four sublimely crafted goals from players at the very peak of their powers, and continuing a run that has not seen them drop a single point in any competition since the last day of August.
Now into December and with the winter break upon us, this is no longer merely form.
Vicious Victor is going through the gears
Victor Osimhen is one of the few in Spalletti’s team to bridge the gap between the old guard, and the new. The Nigerian is still only 23, but he arrived during the almost distant memory of Kalidou Koulibaly, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens days in Naples.
He now stands as a senior figure, and one that is rocking the league once again. Osimhen’s output had been limited last season by injury, restricting him to 14 league goals (at a very healthy rate of 0.64/90 mins, it’s worth reporting). Another injury, this time to his hamstring, kept him out for six matches over September and early October this term too, but Osimhen has roared back in an unstoppable fashion.
His first appearance post-injury saw him come off the bench to score at home to Bologna, and a return to the starting line-up away at AS Roma yielded a sublime strike off a bouncing ball that nearly tore the Stadio Olimpico’s net clean off. Making up for lost time, Osimhen added a further three against Sassuolo.
Two simple close-range finishes, the first of which was manufactured by an acrobatic high-footed piece of control, and finally a beautiful dinked finish for the third. Osimhen is a breathtaking forward in this mood. Explosively quick to run onto long passes in the wide channels, a growingly adept link player, clever movement in-and-around the six-yard box, and a fearsome ball-striker. He now sits joint-top of the goal-scoring charts, and if he can sustain his fitness, can finally look at hitting those elite goal numbers that his talent and hard work deserves.
A mesmerising midfield
The continuity of Napoli’s midfield has been pivotal to their rise. A solid and comfortable trio of Lobotka at the base, Anguissa to the right and Piotr Zielinski further ahead to the left has been their core this season. It is easy to overlook their work given the exploits of Osimhen and Kvaratskhelia, but it is these three that make the whole system tick.
Lobotka is the passing metronome that allows Napoli to build play so rapidly. He will drop deep to form a triangle with the centre-backs and keep play moving by interchanging passes with the defenders. In doing so, Lobotka invites pressure from the opposition and forces them to commit their forward players into a disorganised press. So nimble and agile is he that he knowingly does this to spin away from danger, catching the opposition out of their desired defensive shape, and able to feed one of his two midfield partners with the centre of the pitch at their mercy.
This is Anguissa’s perfect world. The Cameroonian is a sensational carrier of the ball, and like Lobotka is incredibly press-resistant with a capacity to spin away from a challenge and progress play forward in one motion. This profile of midfielders allows Napoli to create a lethal dynamic in central areas. They hold a high percentage of the ball, teasing at the opposition to come forward and win it back, but can bypass it due to the athleticism and excellent ball mastery of their central midfielders. It combines the dominance of a heavy possession side, with the verticality and directness of a side that plays in transition.
Not only this, but Spalletti now has Tanguy Ndombele waiting in the wings to have his moment. Ndombele and Anguissa are in the category of best midfield carriers in Europe, and the Frenchman is beginning to look as sharp and engaged as he has for years. In a post-World Cup half-season, such a weapon could be unrivalled among Napoli’s rivals.
When will hope turn to belief?
There are too many elements to name when summarising what is so special about Napoli currently. So well-documented has Khvicha Kvaratshkelia’s form that it has not been mentioned here, but the Georgian is, without doubt, the perfect metaphor for the explosion of Spalletti’s side.
They find themselves in an unimaginable situation, where they sit comfortably atop Serie A and the form team in Europe. Understandably given their past, many will not wish to applaud them too heavily in fear of ushering in the customary Napoli collapse. The fact is, however, that Napoli are looking unbeatable and richer in both spirit and ability than all those around them.
It might not be long before the questions of ‘could they?’ becomes utterances of ‘they should.’