Napoli have captured the hearts of fans and neutrals with their performances in Europe this season, but in their domestic games they have conspired to shoot themselves in the foot again and again, and again. In Serie A they have beaten the best but have been beaten the weaker sides as well. So why are Napoli enduring such a mediocre season?
This season Napoli have dropped too many points against sides they were sweeping past last season. They have picked up just 11 points against sides in the bottom half of the table, and 7 of those points came against the teams that look certain for relegation – Lecce, Cesena and Novara. This evidence alone paints a damning picture of a season of struggle and a return to being mid-table also-rans.
Against the top 7 sides in the league, though, Napoli have the second best record with 3 wins and 2 draws from the 6 games against their rivals. Could it be the case now that their Champions League second round tie against Chelsea is their last competitive hope this season, and how did it get this bad?
One possible reason (excuse) is the physical and mental distraction of the Champions League and the fixtures they have scheduled around those games. Club president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, made the headlines by storming out at the fixture announcement in August, but Napoli have done reasonably well after their group games. They haven’t lost a single match after a Champions League round, and have even beaten both Milan and Inter. The last round of European fixtures was almost 6 weeks ago, though, and they have only won 1 of their league games in January.
Another possibility is that their style of play, while exhilarating when it comes off, is very predictable and easy to nullify. Napoli have swept teams aside with their incredible counter attacks, but this is only a possibility when the opposition are prepared to push men forward. They are unable to control and impose themselves on games.
The teams in the lower half of Serie A are happy to maintain their shape will try to pick the big sides off – much like Napoli do – and in these instances Napoli have no alternative plans. Luigi Garlando in the Gazzetta dello Sport on Monday said “All of Napoli’s big matches are similar: they attack on the wings, Cavani and Lavezzi come out of their shells…” and all is well. Garlando then refers to every Napoli game as a photocopy of the last one.
In an interview for FIFA.com, Mazzarri claimed “I see myself as an innovator. I’m an Italian coach but I advocate a flexible style of football that isn’t based on just the one system” and they have taken to the field in almost exactly the same manner in every game this season – barring a few personnel changes.
A consistent system brings simplicity but the players appear to be treading water. Against Genoa on Sunday numerous concentration lapses in the man-marking system lead to two of the goals conceded. Christian Maggio spoke after the draw with Siena saying “a four-man defence might help us cover the space a bit better”, perhaps asking their coach to mix things up to keep the players alert and to help them cope with and overcome the different situations they will be faced with.
Almost half the season is yet to be played so there is no need to panic just yet. Juventus’ points total at the half way stage was quite low and there are enough variables at Roma, Lazio and Inter to inspire hope of a revival. But perfection is necessary now more than ever, though, or else the Partenopei season could be over by the beginning of March.
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