Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Friday, October 18, 2013

All eyes on Napoli

On Saturday the waiting ends and the theatre of the Italian Serie A begins. As always there are plenty of storylines – from Inter Milan’s new beginnings to Roma’s rich promise – but the headline act is Rafael Benitez’s new Napoli.

After four years of bullish football, a gung-ho three-man defence and Edinson Cavani, 2013/14 represents a new frontier for the Partenopei.

The mastermind of the mad orchestra, Walter Mazzarri, is gone, to Inter, and his centrepiece Cavani has been sold to Paris Saint-Germain for €64 million.

On Saturday evening, against Bologna at the Stadio San Paolo, the Rafa-lution starts.

The Rafa-lution

Benitez’s arrival at Napoli is his second foray into Italian football management. His first was a tumultuous spell at Inter in 2010 that lasted just six months.

However, unlike in Milan, there’s an air of enthusiasm in Naples around Benitez’s appointment and the evolution he represents for a club seeking to entrench itself as a major force in Italy, and Europe. Benitez is a successful coach – a winner of two Spanish league titles, an FA Cup, a Uefa Cup, the Europa League and the Uefa Champions League.

It’s a perfect match.

Fever & Excitement
Napoli fans are expectant...
Napoli too provides Benitez the ‘project’ he’s been craving since leaving Inter. At Napoli he has the freedom to bring in his players and the backing to implement his ideas.

The club’s summer activity has revealed as much, seven new signings have arrived while Benitez’s remodelling of the team’s shape has been swift. Benitez is a disciple of the 4-2-3-1 formation – a system he popularised at Valencia with Pablo Aimar as the focal point and perfected with Steven Gerrard at Liverpool. He has immediately ditched the 3-4-3 set-up Mazzarri so loved.

Napoli’s new signings
Dries Mertens
Pablo Armero
Rafael Cabral
Jose Callejon
Real Madrid
Raul Albiol
Real Madrid
Gonzalo Higuain
Real Madrid
Pepe Reina (loan)

However, while a more orthodox approach will be adopted, it doesn’t mean Napoli will become a defensive side.

The classification of Benitez as a defensive coach is inaccurate; rather he aims to establish a solid base to build from. At Valencia, his first league winning team of 2001/02 registered a return of just 51 goals in 38 games. In their second title success, two years later, Valencia scored 71 goals.

Similarly at Liverpool, his 2008-09 side had evolved into well-oiled offensive unit that produced several memorable performances, not least a 4-1 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford.

The Rafa-lution means a more studious approach at Napoli, with the emphasis on establishing balance between the offence and the defence.

The Offence

Losing Cavani’s 29 league goals would be a blow to any side. However, in Gonzalo Higuain the Partenopei have acquired a gifted replacement, one malleable to the Benitez vision.

Higuain is a proven scorer in his own right, as his 107 league goals in 190 games for Real Madrid attest to. Last season the Argentine had a shot accuracy of 51.8 percent and an excellent conversion rate of 28.6 percent. Given the service, he will score.

Gonzalo Higuain Stats – La Liga 2012/13

Still, Benitez’s signings and pre-season combinations indicate the plan for a more flexible attack, one not reliant on Higuain alone to replace Cavani’s goals.

Whereas Napoli under Mazzarri increasingly became centred around Cavani’s talents (Cavani scored 40 percent of Napoli’s goals last season), Benitez has always advocated a system with offensive diversity containing players providing width (Dries Mertens), others a direct physical threat (Jose Callejon) and technical ball-players able to retain possession (Goran Pandev).

The pieces he’s put together fit his model: a fluid offensive unit that presents opponents different threats and attacking angles.

Behind Higuain, Mertens scored 18 goals in 37 appearances for PSV last season while Hamsik had 11 Serie A goals. Callejon, Pandev and the emerging Lorenzo Insigne are also goal-threats.

The Defence

In order to win major titles, however, a team’s offensive potential has to be balanced by a defensive integrity – goals may win games, but defence wins championships.

Benitez has clearly tried to address Napoli’s defence, an area for improvement if the aim is to be a championship winning team

Napoli have been Serie A’s entertainers in recent years – last season they scored a league-high 73 goals. The defence, however, has been an area that’s repeatedly held the Partenopei back. Case in point: last season Napoli conceded 12 more goals than champions Juventus.

A closer look Napoli’s 2012/13 stats reveals two startling flaws.

For a start, Napoli conceded a disturbing 44 percent of their goals at the end of each half, not only suggesting tactical frailties but mental and physical deficiencies also.

Secondly, although Napoli only conceded 36 goals last season, they allowed 12.8 shots per game, the most of Serie A’s top four sides. The figure is all the more concerning considering Napoli averaged 54.2 percent ball possession through the season (the fifth highest in Serie A) and illustrates the team’s vulnerability as soon as they lost possession.

Both issues explain why Napoli didn’t keep a clean-sheet against any of their immediate rivals and both were instrumental in disappointing losses to Chievo (2-0) and Bologna (3-2) which ultimately derailed Napoli’s bid for the Scudetto.

Shots conceded per game
AC Milan
Via WhoScored

Napoli against the Top Four
Napoli 2-1 Fiorentina
Juventus 2-0 Napoli
Napoli 2-2 AC Milan
Fiorentina 1-1 Napoli
Napoli 1-1 Juventus
AC Milan 1-1 AC Milan

These are areas Benitez, with his meticulous attention to detail and devotion to fitness, should improve while the deployment of two midfielders in front of the defence also provides further security.

Benitez has also made upgrades in personnel bringing in Pepe Reina on loan from Liverpool to replace the error-prone Morgan De Sanctis in goals. Similarly, Albiol is a more measured option at the heart of the defence than Hugo Campagnaro.

Probable Napoli team vs. Bologna
Maggio            Cannavaro       Albiol              Armero
Inler     Behrami
Pandev            Hamsik            Insigne

The Forecast

Can you hear us coming?
Napoli's Marek Hamsik
Benitez has taken charge of Napoli with the club on the up. The Partenopei finished second in Serie A last season, their highest finish since the title-winning season of 1989-90. That alone brings expectation.

However, just remaining in the Serie A’s top three Champions League spots will be a challenge in itself. Juventus remain the class of the league. AC Milan will be stronger, so too will be Inter. Roma’s loaded squad can only improve while Fiorentina are a rising force bolstered by shrewd signings.

Taking into account Benitez’s previous spell in Italy and the high hopes in Naples, this revolution, as with any in history, could go one of two ways – really bad or really good.

Nevertheless, Benitez may well be the man to steer Napoli over the Scudetto hump. And it all begins on Saturday against Bologna.

Originally written for BSports StatsInsights: August 23, 2013

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