There are only two teams across Europe’s top five leagues with a 100% record this season. Fresh from arguably the best summer transfer window ever, Paris Saint-Germain have racked up eight wins from eight in Ligue 1. The other team is Napoli.
The Partenopei appointed Luciano Spalletti in the summer following Gennaro Gattuso’s departure.
Napoli narrowly missed out on a Champions League spot last term, finishing just a single point off the top four and two points behind runners-up AC Milan. A draw with Verona on the final day cost them.
The Gli Azzurri would’ve had every right to feel aggrieved. Only eventual winners Inter and Atalanta scored more than their 86 goals while Inter and Juventus were the only two teams in the top ten with a better defensive record.
It is difficult to improve on such a well-rounded performance, yet Napoli have done just that.
We may only be six games into the new Serie A campaign, but they appear to have levelled up.
Spalletti’s men have claimed six wins from six and this run includes a 2-1 victory over Juventus. They’ve showcased a resilience – eking out wins when required and sweeping aside some opponents with big scorelines.
So what has changed for Napoli this season?
For starters, the shape they’re being deployed in.
Under Gattuso, the team operated in a 4-2-3-1 system but Spalletti has moved away from that. Instead, Napoli are using a 4-3-3 shape with two box-to-box midfielders in Piotr Zielenski and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa on either side of Fabian Ruiz in the middle third.
This has resulted in the Spanish maestro seeing more of the ball. In fact, on a per 90 basis, he’s attempting 13 more passes this season which might not seem like much but extrapolate that over the entirety of a season and it is a difference of close to 500.
Ruiz actually ranks first for attempted passes per 90 in Serie A this term with 80.
As the passing sonar shows, Ruiz is tasked with keeping play ticking over. He’s the link between, well, everyone. He gives them the base and they’re able to build from that.
Napoli are generally much more confident on the ball this term as a team.
They attempt more passes and more sequences involving 10 passes or more. Spalletti’s side are averaging fewer long passes but more passes into the final third, showing their build-up is different compared to last season.
Napoli build as a team and this allows them to control the game better – both with the ball and without it. They rank first in Serie A for possession (58.8%) and their passes per defensive action (PPDA) average has dropped from 13.53 last season to 9.7 this term.
You can see the difference in their opposition engagement maps. This season, Napoli are looking to put opponents under pressure in the final third and this allows them to essentially pin them in, set up camp in the opposition’s half and have a base for their wave upon wave of attacks.
This gives them more goalscoring opportunities and aids them defensively, too.
In fact, their biggest improvement comes in the defensive third, with their expected goals conceded average dropping by 0.64 per 90. Napoli just aren’t giving up chances. For added context, an expected goals conceded average of 0.56 over a 38-game season is just 21 goals.
If they manage to get close to that, it’ll be hard to see anyone pipping them to the title. It is worth reiterating that this is a small sample size, but it’s also fair to note just how impressive that is.
Napoli are having a similar number of shots to last season but their expected goals average is up by almost 0.2 per 90. Quite simply, they are creating higher value chances. As you can see in the shot map above, the Partenopei have managed to carve out a lot of chances inside the six-yard box.
The main beneficiary of this is Victor Osimhen.
The 22-year-old is on four Serie A goals for the season already and three of those have come from six-yards or closer.
Osimhen – who signed for a club record fee in the summer of 2020 – had a bit of a stop-start debut campaign in Italy. An injury and a bout of COVID saw him miss the best part of three months. Though he did finish the campaign with ten goals, it wasn’t what many had envisaged when the club parted with €70million to pry him away from Lille.
Spalletti is getting the best out of his No.9 by treating him like a No.9. The system ensures Osimhen sees a lot of the ball in and around the penalty area and his averages have spiked massively. He’s taking more shots (4.09 per 90 up from 3.12), touches in the box have risen from 4.79 to 6.1 and his expected goals average has more than doubled.
If Napoli and Osimhen are able to ensure these averages last the entirety of the season, it could fire them to the Scudetto.
The Gli Azzurri are excelling in every area of the pitch and it is no wonder they’ve been perfect in Serie A so far this term.
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