Recovering from a massive disappointment is hard enough in life but doing so while you are also trying to make the leap from very good to great, is truly a Herculean task. This is essentially the situation Napoli have found themselves in following Maurizio Sarri’s departure to Chelsea, and while the club has on paper made almost all the right moves, you simply can’t plan your way out of battling issues that are mainly mental.
Despite this challenging situation, I was very tempted to pick Napoli to win the scudetto when the season started. They kept all of their best players, added Kostas Manolas to replace Raul Albiol who had missed most of the previous season, made a big sacrifice to add Hector Lozano to an already stacked front line, acquired one of the most impressive players at a very scarce position on the market with Di Lorenzo and bolstered their bench with impressive Turkish prospect Elmas and veteran striker Llorente.
The assumption was that going into a second year with Ancelotti would give the team an advantage over Juventus who were going through a very significant philosophical change from Allegri’s pragmatic style to the vaunted offensive juggernaut known as Sarriball. But instead Napoli find themselves way behind Inter who now look like Juventus’ main antagonist for the foreseeable future and also trailing Roma, Lazio, Atalanta and incredibly Cagliari who defeated the partenopei at the San Paolo in the match that started their tailspin.
Napoli’s struggles are even more puzzling when you consider how well they operated on the transfer market since losing the scudetto to Juventus in dramatic fashion. While Manolas, Lozano, and Llorente were quite the haul of established players this summer, in recent years president De Laurentiis and sporting director Giuntoli hit grand slam homeruns on Fabian Ruiz and Alex Meret, two players who are now worth considerably more than when they were acquired and are now elite players at their positions league wide.
Even Arkadiusz Milik who arrived to replace Higuain has done his part when he’s been healthy, so it’s hard to fault the team’s philosophy and execution on the transfer market. What has held Napoli back this season are the veterans who have formed the core of the team in recent years- Allan, Koulibaly and Insigne.
Since Arturo Vidal’s departure from Juventus, Allan has held the title of the best box to box midfielder in Serie A (you can make a case for Nainggolan but he hasn’t been as consistent and healthy) but his performances fell off a cliff following his failed transfer to Paris St Germain last January. Napoli demanded a massive return for the Brazilian international since they knew that signing their top choice to replace him, Niccolo’ Barella, would cost a small fortune- in retrospect not selling Allan at right time also hurt Napoli in another way since Barella has been a key player for Inter who have no surpassed Napoli as Juventus’ main antagonist.
A player struggling after participating in the Africa Cup is nothing new since in recent years, we saw Gervinho and Benatia come back from that tournament and be a shell of their usual selves. But Koulibaly has been so outstanding in recent years, that many assumed he would get back on track after a few games under his belt. Except for his brilliant performance against Liverpool, Koulibaly has been a liability for Ancelotti on top of receiving an uncharacteristic two game suspension.
Home town hero Lorenzo Insigne has had his share of issues in 2019. His agent Mino Raiola met with the club multiple times this year to resolve a few disputes mainly centered around playing time. Insigne was sent to the stands for a Champions League match and confirmed in an interview while with the Italian national team, that he has had his share of disagreements with Ancelotti on a few topics but mainly his position on the pitch.
If that weren’t enough drama, De Laurentiis has been essentially publicly negotiating extensions for Callejon and Mertens, two of the best new additions to Serie A this decade. While it’s understandable that Napoli’s president wants to ensure he’ll be paying them for what they can do in the future rather than just reward them for their (considerable) past performances, his stance has created even more tension around the team, while alienating two key players for Ancelotti.
So despite doing all the right things on the transfer market, spending significantly to keep numerous key players, Napoli find themselves as essentially Serie A’s version of the Atlanta Falcons- a team that has never fully recovered from losing the Super Bowl to the Patriots in dramatic. The hangover effect has also been worsened by Napoli’s inability to make the leap from good to great- at this point there’s even a chance Napoli won’t qualify for the next Champions League, a scenario that would have been unimaginable at the start of the season. Ancelotti’s status at the club is now on the brink…