Who Wants To Dethrone Juventus? Napoli’s Quest For The Scudetto
With only one team winning the last eight championships, the fight for the Serie A title has lost much of its appeal. So much so that it has become, I dare say, boring. Juventus' dominance has been virtually unchallenged since 2012 and not even a 91-point season of Napoli in 2017/2018 was enough to break the streak of consecutive successes from the Old Lady. Across those eight seasons, Juve have collected an average of 90.8 points (with a jaw-dropping total of 102 points in 2013/14) and have maintained an average advantage over the second-placed team of +9.3 points. In practice, in most cases, the Scudetto has been already sewn to the chest of the Bianconeri at the beginning of spring.
Although the major bookmakers consider the ninth consecutive championship of Juventus particularly likely (the implied probability associated with another Scudetto ranges between 67% and 71%), Serie A has a clear need for this season to be fought to the end. Not only for (neutral) fans who dream of finally having a thrilling season that keeps them glued in front of their screens, but also to reaffirm the credibility of the league internationally. Serie A is desperate for competition at the top to return to be a commercially attractive product and to increase its turnover and that of the 19 teams that are not named Juventus. It perhaps needs a team to dethrone the Old Lady; a new Queen.
After 5 years with Allegri, Juventus powerbrokers Agnelli and Nedved have chosen to bet on Sarri, and he has spent the summer changing the tactical mentality of the team. Because of this important transition and the worrying downturn in Juventus' performance at the end of last season, there could be some margin to put the Turin club in trouble.
Surely, the team that is in the best position to conquer Juventus, also by virtue of their results from the last few seasons is Napoli. Of the 2018/19 top-six teams, Azzurri is the only one, apart from Atalanta to have retained their coach, as well as having confirmed virtually all the players of last season. Among the players who left the team, the only one who played a significant amount of minutes was Albiol (1843 minutes).
Last season Napoli led the league in non-penalty expected goals per game (1.65, tied with Atalanta), non-penalty expected goals conceded per game (0.81) shots per game(18.5), clear shots per game (3.9) and clear shots per game conceded (1.7).
Analyzing their underlying numbers, they very much profiled as potential Serie A contenders, yet they were not able to seriously compete for the title and finished the season in second place, 11 points behind their Bianconeri rivals, who failed to win the last five matches of their season. They even equaled, if not topped Juventus defensive profile as a team, but it was still not enough to overcome them. Indeed, Allegri's team were an unconventional behemoth grinding out points perhaps thanks to the technical superiority of its players even without producing the numbers of a "super-team".
In essence, even if Napoli was able, at least sporadically, to excite its fans, the judgment on last season has remained pending (if not negative) for the lack of appreciable results and because none of the key players made the leap that many expected, given Ancelotti's reputation as a coach capable of getting the most out of the best players of his team - every reference to Lorenzo Insigne's new role as a second striker is, alas, intentionally not accidental.
In his first season at Napoli, Carlo Ancelotti made the team that belonged to Sarri his own, developing a chameleonic formation capable of adapting to the opponent and the different situations of the game, while maintaining its own precise identity of play. It's no coincidence, then, that in a team where there's no room for specialists, that Fabian Ruiz - the best rookie of the Serie A last season, if you ask me - has come to the fore, to the point of making it no pain to sell club-legend midfielder Marek Hamsik.
During the summer, Ancelotti, the coach who returned to Italy last season after nine years abroad, worked further to make his team as flexible as possible (in fact almost no one, if not perhaps Koulibaly and Allan, is irreplaceable) and even more fluid in moving across the pitch to efficiently occupy spaces, especially those between the lines. It seems certain that Napoli will defend with two lines of four, but offensively Ancelotti likes to shuffle the deck and so far, he fielded his team in a 3-4-2-1 with a fullback advanced in midfield or even in a more elaborated 3-1-3-3.
The idea is to have more solutions and be less predictable. Indeed, even if in 2018/19 they were the best attack in terms of xG generated, sometimes Napoli's game seemed uninspired and they were unable to turn their territorial supremacy in goals.
At the same time, the management tried to improve the team via the transfer market. In their attempt to pose a serious threat to Juventus, Napoli added Kostas Manolas and Hirving Lozano to the team, while also buying Empoli's right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo and 19-year old midfielder Eljif Elmas from Fenerbache.
At Roma, Manolas has for years been one of the best defenders of the league and, together with Koulibaly, will form a formidable centre-back pairing, at least in terms of speed and athleticism. The Greek is a defender with clear virtues and weaknesses but should be an improvement over the soon to be 34-year-old Albiol who left for Villareal and this move will allow Ancelotti to keep his defensive line higher.
Lozano, the club's most expensive signing ever at €38+4 million, is an intriguing purchase because it is not immediately clear where he will play. At PSV he played on the left under Cocu, but last season he was moved to the right side (with occasional stints on the left) by Van Bommel. Ancelotti could even use him behind a striker or as the main striker, something he has alluded to himself.
Probably, as his radar shows, the Mexican's best quality is his goal-scoring ability (he scored 17 times in both of his two Eredivisie seasons). While the transition from the Eredivisie to Serie A won't be easy, Napoli needs someone else to rely on when it comes to scoring goals other than Milik and Mertens, who generated 42% of the total xG and scored 45% of the goals last season. This is more relevent when considering the Polish striker's injury history (incidentally, he won't take part to the season debut against Fiorentina) and Mertens' drop in production likely due to aging (his shots average declined in each of the last three seasons). To add depth to their attack the Azzurri seem about to purchase Llorente, while a move for Icardi seems unlikely.
But Lozano could contribute in other ways too. At PSV he had minimum defensive responsibilities and given his technical superiority a free role in attack that led to him taking high risks when passing and carrying the ball (as shown by a high number of turnovers and his low passing percentage). At Napoli, he will play in a different environment offensively in which more well-rounded qualities could emerge in multiple ways.
In this sense, Lozano seems particularly suited to Ancelotti's idea of having a positionally fluid team, in which players are required to be able to perform different roles and duties. He could even put Insigne on the bench at a later stage of the season. Napoli have room for improvement in regards of the average quality of chances created and in shot distance (18.1 meters on average) and benching a trigger-happy inside forward who averaged 4.7 shots per 90 and 0.07 xG/shot last season could help. I don't consider Insigne a one-dimensional player, but Lozano seems more suited to Ancelotti's fluid system due to his unpredictability.
Regardless of how the team hierarchies will change, Napoli still seems to lack something to compete with Juventus, at least in terms of overall quality. The purchases of Manolas and Lozano are certainly important to raise the collective value of the team, but it would take another effort to try to get closer to the champions of Italy. There are still almost 10 days left before the end of the transfer window and who knows if the club does not make a final attempt for Real Madrid's James Rodriguez, a player reportedly chased throughout the transfer campaign and perfect for Ancelotti's brand of football.
If the roster stays more or less as it is today, Ancelotti, who said he was confident about the improvements of the team, will have to overcome a brand-new challenge for him. Turning, in pure Aristotelian fashion, a team without superstars into a team far stronger than the sum of its parts. If he can achieve this a second Scudetto for him is available.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association