Napoli ultras were livid when club legends like Dries Mertens, Kalidou Koulibaly and Lorenzo Insigne were let go.
Those who came in as replacements were virtual unknowns who the club hierarchy felt fit manager Luciano Spalletti’s vision. Ever since Aurelio De Laurentiis purchased the club in 2004, money has never been a problem for Napoli and they have made some high-profile signings over the years. They were briefly linked with Cristiano Ronaldo too to boost their forwardline. But Spalletti likes complete control of his squad and in the past hasn’t had cordial relationships with ageing players like AS Roma legend Francesco Totti when he was the manager of the club.
Thus, the overhaul began. Georgian winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia was bought for just €10 million from FC Dinamo Batumi, centre-back Kim Min-jae was an €18 million arrival from Fenerbahce, Italian striker Giacomo Raspadori, forward Giovanni Simone and midfielder Tanguy Ndombele were loan recruits from US Sassuolo, Hellas Verona and Tottenham respectively. The idea was to freshen up the squad with young legs, and most players are between 21 to 27. Martens, Koulibaly and Insigne were over 30.
As the team started preparation for the 2022-23 Serie A season, the protest intensified. But 13 games into the season, that opposition has been silenced and unbeaten Napoli are atop the standings with 38 points—they have won 12 of the 14 games and are eight points ahead of AC Milan–and target their first scudetto since Diego Maradona led them to their only domestic league titles in 1987 and 1990. They topped their Champions League group as well and will face Eintracht Frankfurt in the last 16.
Their early season success has been built on the young squad’s belief in Spalletti’s coaching style that focusses on keeping possession, constant attacking and hammering the opponents from both wings.
The Italian manager though isn’t thinking too far. “You win titles in May or June or August—whenever the season ends. We’ve got to keep our feet on the ground without any presumption, without carrying ourselves as phenomenons. We’re going to keep eating our sandwiches on the train and we’ve got to keep ourselves as lucid as an old record player,” said the 63-year-old former Inter and Roma coach.
Spalletti staying grounded despite the team flying high stems from the fact that Napoli have blown their chances in the past. Even pundits predict they will lose their sting as the season progresses and Spalletti will face the same fate as Walter Mazzarri and Maurizio Sarri, who came close to winning Serie A but didn’t.
There are some players who can help rewrite those disappointing scripts.
Kvaratskhelia, 21, is a hot property in European football, already has eight goals and 10 assists in all competitions and has earned the nickname ‘Kvaradona’, the ultimate tribute from Napoli fans who adore the Argentine legend.
Korean Kim’s bright start has meant Napoli aren’t missing the charismatic Koulibaly at the centre of defence. Not among the elite forwards, Raspadori and Simone still have played the support role well, scoring 11 goals between them in all competitions.
The biggest gain for Napoli is the return to fitness of club record signing from two seasons ago, Victor Osimhen. The Nigerian has been flying high this season, forming a lethal partnership with Kvaratskhelia. He already has nine goals, including five in the last two Serie A outings.
Then there are silent contributors who have done a perfect job. Right-back and skipper Giovanni Di Lorenzo has led from the front, defensive midfielders Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Stanislav Lobotka have formed a good partnership at the centre of the park and Amir Rahmani has been good support for Kim.
Napoli have scored the most goals in Serie A, and already have wins over AC Milan, AS Roma, Atalanta and Lazio in the league. Their real test though will be how they finish the campaign.