‘Rarely have we seen Serie A winners collapse like Napoli’

21 February 2024 0 By Total Football News

Mina Rzouki banner

Another weekend without a win, another coach dismissed – such has been the reality at Napoli this season.

When they welcome Barcelona to the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona in the Champions League on Wednesday, Napoli will have another new face on the bench, with Francesco Calzona becoming their third boss of the campaign.

Rarely have we seen Italian champions collapse so spectacularly in their efforts to defend the title. The destruction of Napoli’s style and identity, not to mention their competitive attitude, since they won Serie A has been unfathomable.

They are no longer anywhere close to being the “strongest team in Europe”, as they were described by Manchester City’s Treble-winning coach Pep Guardiola last year.

At this stage of last season, Napoli had collected 65 points in Serie A, having destroyed Juventus 5-1 at the start of the calendar year, and both Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia were purring. The team had scored 58 goals in 24 games and possessed the league’s stingiest defence.

Their style of football was intoxicating. The Partenopei were not simply winning matches, they were thrashing teams and thrilling fans with every dribble and through ball they delivered.

Luciano Spalletti was being hailed a genius, as was the club’s sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli for unearthing talents such as Kvaratskhelia and Kim Min-jae.

Today, Napoli are ninth in the league – 27 points behind leaders Inter. They sacked Spalletti’s replacement Rudi Garcia after 16 matches of the season and have just dismissed Walter Mazzarri 17 games later. Neither had come close to recreating the Scudetto-winning manager’s impact.

“I should’ve sacked Garcia after his first day!” club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis told Il Corriere dello Sport.

“Because someone who arrives and says ‘I don’t know Napoli, I’ve never seen a match’… I should have understood at that moment.”

De Laurentiis’ admission explained why a team that once progressed the ball so beautifully – showcasing an understanding of space – to create goalscoring opportunities, had begun dismally launching long balls forward hoping for some Osimhen magic.

Rudi GarciaRudi Garcia was sacked after 16 matches in charge at Napoli

Garcia was duly dismissed and, while he proved to be the wrong choice, his replacement Mazzarri seemed like a desperate one.

Time spent in charge of Torino and Cagliari had shown him to be a coach wedded to antiquated tactical ideals. Was Mazzarri – over a decade on from his first spell in charge in Naples – really the right man to revive a struggling club?

As is turned out, the former Watford coach achieved even less than his maligned predecessor. Far less.

Playing at home against newly promoted Genoa this weekend, it took until the 90th minute for Napoli’s new signing Cyril Ngonge to secure a point. It was the 11th time in 17 matches under Mazzarri that Napoli had gone behind and been forced to desperately search for an equaliser.

The team that scored more than 100 goals in all competitions under Spalletti last season only managed nine league goals since Mazzarri took charge of his first match on 25 November – fewer than any other team in Serie A in that time. Under Garcia, they had at least averaged two goals a game.

Napoli’s players had struggled to absorb Mazzarri’s concepts. Confusion reigned supreme as the manager attempted to create a squad that was tactically flexible, capable of shifting shapes and formations with ease.

In the 1-0 defeat by Milan he changed shape four times, moving players around as if they were chess pieces on a board. It proved unsuccessful and only succeeded in further stripping the squad of their self-esteem.

Mazzari and OsimhenWalter Mazzarri lasted just 17 game at the helm

The clever Stanislav Lobotka now looks slow, weak and confused; Andre Zambo Anguissa is often caught losing possession, while neither Giovanni Simeone nor Giacomo Raspadori managed to score a single league goal under Mazzarri.

Of course, the absence of Osimhen has been keenly felt and Mazzarri was barely able to count on Serie A’s best striker from last season.

Between injuries and his participation at the Africa Cup of Nations, Osimhen has only started 11 league games for the Partenopei this season. Last year, Gazzetta dello Sport noted that “taking the field with him is like starting 1-0”.

Osimhen is not only an efficient goalscorer but a team leader and one half of a duo that led Napoli to the title last season.

By week 26 in 2022-23, Osimhen and Kvaratskhelia had been involved in 43 of Napoli’s 84 goals in all competitions. Without the Nigerian, Kvaratskhelia is left fighting entire defences, attempting to resolve matches on his own.

It is distressing to think how quickly a supremely built sporting project has buckled.

“I blame myself because Spalletti had to stay,” De Laurentiis said in a news conference at the start of February.

“I repeat, I had to confirm Spalletti and see what would have happened. That was the error that led to all the rest.”

Good players are necessary but great management is paramount to success and De Laurentiis has struggled to replace sporting director Giuntoli and Spalletti, who has since taken over as Italy boss.

New coach Calzona is a familiar face and has been given the reins until the end of the season. He is also the current coach of the Slovakia national team and will lead them at Euro 2024.

Having previously worked with Maurizio Sarri and Spalletti, he knows the players well and is familiar with the brand of football the fans and the city covet. Whether or not he can produce the results the club desperately need remains to be seen.

Barcelona await but at least there is some good news for Napoli fans – Osimhen is back.

Mina Rzouki is a European football journalist and broadcaster who is writing for BBC Sport this season. If you have a question on European football that you’d like to ask her, then fill out the form below and she will answer a selection of them in subsequent columns.

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