Napoli have solidified themselves as one of the most exciting sides to watch this season around European soccer. Luciano Spalletti has helped build a squad that has been fun to watch and loaded with new talents that bring joy to the eyes of Gli Azzurri fans in Naples.
Only few could imagine this kind of impact from the beginning, especially after a summer exodus that featured the likes of Kalidou Koulibaly and Fabian Ruiz walk out the door and ownership letting go of club legends Dries Mertens and captain Lorenzo Insigne as free agents.
Napoli, currently Serie A leaders with 14 points in six matches, level with Atalanta and AC Milan, have a Sunday showdown set with the Rossoneri at San Siro with a chance to start establishing some breathing room at the top of the table. Considering we are only in early September and there’s still 32 matchdays to go in the season, this might be a match that tells us more about this Napoli’s longterm potential than where they stand in this season’s title race. So, what can we expect from Napoli after this summer’s shakeup?
The new cycle
Imagine telling a Napoli fan at the beginning of the transfer window that the club was about to sell Koulibaly and Ruiz on top of letting free agents and club idols Mertens and Insigne bid farewell. It seemed like a bitter pill to swallow, but club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, always meticulous with the finances, determined that this was the right time for a change.
After selling the two stars with contracts expiring in June 2023 for around €60 million in total, Napoli reinvested in young and talented players. They landed defender Kim Min-Jae for approximately €19.5 million, strikers Giovanni Simeone for €15 million and Giacomo Raspadori for a €30 million total fee between loan and obligation to buy and Tanguy Ndombele via loan from Tottneham Hotspur.
But the most important deal made over the summer was to acquire an under-the-radar 21-year-old Georgian talent who was lighting up the Russian Premier League before Russia invaded Ukraine and left his club career trajectory uncertain. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, a winger out of Georgia who became a household name for Napoli fans, arrived at the club for around €10 million in one of the most surprising transfers of the summer.
The new talent
Kvaratskhelia is the man everyone — including Thierry Henry in the video above — is talking about as of late. And rightfully so. The young Georgian star has been sensational since the start of the season with four goals scored in his first six Serie A games, and two assists in all competitions.
He’s used as a left winger under Spalletti’s system in place of former captain Insigne. For some, those are huge shoes to fill at a club that has not won a Serie A title since the days of Diego Armando Maradona in 1989-90. But Kvaratskhelia, who turns 22 in February, has shown the right attitude on and off the pitch with a fan base in desperate need for a Scudetto. So much so that Napoli fans dreaming big have nicknamed him as “Kvaradona” after the Argentine legend.
In terms of numbers, the early returns — four goals and two assists in 368 minutes in Serie A — have been phenomenal. Three of his goals came from open play, one of which was a header, while nine of his 18 shots been on target. He’s also created eight chances and completed eight of the 28 attempted take-ons while boasting a pass accuracy completion percentage of 81.3%.
Apart from the eye-popping numbers, Kvaratskhelia has shown confidence this early on to take shots from outside or inside the box, score from headers, take defenders one on one with his dynamic pace. You put all that together and the early returns suggests he’s on pace to becoming one of the best players around and it won’t be a surprise if top European clubs come knocking on the Napoli’s door next summer.
The Spalletti factor
The mastermind behind the early success of Napoli is Luciano Spalletti. The Italian coach has failed to win a trophy in Italy in the past 14 years, but he improved every team he has coached, including during his stops at AS Roma and Inter Milan. After he was sacked by the Nerazzurri, Spalletti remained patient before making his pitch-side return once the right opportunity presented itself. Napoli was the perfect change of scenery for Spalletti to build something new and exciting.
Spalletti’s first season left some fans with the feeling that Napoli could have done more in the race for the Scudetto, especially with the amount of points Inter Milan and AC Milan dropped in the second half of the season. Napoli finished third, seven points behind AC Milan, and were probably not ready to make the leap to championship contender once they got hit hard with injuries, specifically to Victor Osimhen, who was sidelined for more than two months between November and January.
This year feels different for Spalletti, who has been able to adapt his style of playing to a new tactical system. The former Inter Milan coach is known to play with the 4-2-3-1, but this season he started from the first match to play with a 4-3-3 that sees Piotr Zielinski to act as both a midfielder and a number 10, with a more flexible attitude between the attacking and midfield lines.
They have also put together a dream start to the Champions League group stage with wins at home against Liverpool and at Ibrox against Rangers to go six points out of six with four games to go. Reaching the knockout stages in a group that also features Ajax might be a decent barometer for where Spalletti’s men stand before the European club season hits the pause button for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in November and December.
It’s too early to determine whether Napoli have the chops to contend for the Serie A title for a full season, but they may have all the piece to make things interesting. Winning the Scudetto would be more than a historical feat for the fans of a city that has been starved for a title since the days of Maradona. If Spalletti, Osimhen and a man nicknamed Kvaradona deliver, they will forever be remembered as heroes in Naples.