Friday last week, Napoli confirmed they had broken their transfer record for the signature of striker Victor Osimhen.
In fact, according to President Aurelio De Laurentiis, the club’s total outlay for the 21-year-old (80 million euros) also eclipses the previous African record held by Nicolas Pepe. Considering the buying club will usually seek to downplay their expenditure, one can consider the film mogul’s figures to be close enough to reality.
As is easy enough to imagine, the finances of this deal, as well as the protracted nature of the transfer itself – Osimhen changed his representation more than midway through the initial negotiations, and there were reported points of difference over image rights percentages – means that, right away, there is a significant weight of expectation on the player’s shoulders.
The Nigeria international is far from the finished article, however. While he made huge strides in Ligue 1 in terms of his overall game, there remains a lot of room for improvement. However, with Lille operating a model that seeks to turn profits on overlooked prospects, the option of staying in the north of France was completely taken out of the player’s hands. According to reports in the French media, Osimhen’s preference was to remain with the Mastiffs for one more season.
There has been exhaustive analysis of the player’s style as interest in his signature got more and more heated. The subject of his likely destination was also explored here, and I also settled on a club in Serie A, albeit Roma rather than Napoli. The basis of that recommendation was threefold: first, finding a team with a similar profile of starting striker to Osimhen, with a view to minimizing the potential adaptation period; featuring in European competition (at the time of writing, Napoli were outside the European places, and so did not come up in the analysis); and then, prioritizing a playing style that excelled in creating a high volume of chances.
The reason for the latter consideration was that, as stated already, Osimhen needs developing further. Playing for a team that creates few chances increases the pressure on the striker(s) to be more efficient, and surely it would be better to play within a system where his misses (and they will come) would not necessarily be terminal.
State of affairs at Napoli
All of that is moot now that he has signed for Napoli, of course.
The question changes: how good of a fit will it be? What can Osimhen expect in Naples, and how different is it from Lille? Most importantly, does he have it in him to be a success in Italy?
First of all, consider the club itself.
The Azzurri ended the 2019/20 season in 7th, but will enter the 2020/21 the Europa League Group Stage directly by virtue of winning Coppa Italia.
That said, in many respects, it was a disaster of a season for the Neapolitans. Having started the league campaign poorly and taken the players’ side in a mutinous feud with the club hierarchy, Carlo Ancelotti was sacked in December following their final Champions League group game — a 4-0 win over Genk. In his place, Gennaro Gattuso was appointed and tasked with steering the ship out of turbulent waters.
Despite initial scepticism from many quarters, as well as the obvious gap in pedigree between him and Ancelotti, Gattuso managed to do precisely that. Napoli’s win percentage shot up to 55 per cent from 38 per cent under his predecessor, and he led them to a first bit of silverware since 2014, overcoming Lazio, Inter and Juventus along the way. That’s three of the sides that finished the league season in the Champions League places.
In terms of chance creation and goals, Napoli are 4th in Serie A in terms of non-penalty Expected Goals (xG) with 58.8, but despite taking the second most shots in Serie A, they were outscored by seven other sides this past season. In the top half, only Fiorentina and Hellas Verona had a larger underperformance of their xG numbers. This is usually a sign of poor finishing: more specifically, considering Napoli’s percentage of shots on target is (slightly) above league average, opposing goalkeepers appear to have done particularly well against them.
Conversion-wise, it is unlikely that Osimhen will prove a significant upgrade right away on Arkadiusz Milik, the player he has been signed, ostensibly, to replace.
Both players are strikingly similar in terms of their output; Milik averages slightly more shots per 90, gets marginally more bang for his buck when he shoots, but really that’s all that separates them: volume. He also presses almost as aggressively in the final third of the pitch as Osimhen (this is one area in which the Nigerian has excelled in Europe). You would be forgiven for thinking they punched in ‘similar players’ on a database or something.
Of course, Milik is five years older and in his peak physically; that should not be discounted. What this does mean, however, is that Napoli will need a lot of improvement from their new record signing if he is to prove a shrewd investment.
The slight outlier here is Dries Mertens, who is a better presser but, by taking more speculative shots from somewhat less “sensible” locations, scores a wider variety of goals. He is the club’s all-time record goalscorer, and largely time-shared with Milik upfront this past season.
For all that there are a lot of similarities between Osimhen and Milik, there are some differences as well, notably in their work during build-up, their link-up play (as the radar shows, Osimhen’s ability to make the ball stick leaves a lot to be desired) and their contribution to moves that do not necessarily end in them scoring themselves.
Oddly, despite setting up more shots and having the same Expected Assists (the statistical likelihood that a pass will result in a goal), Osimhen has more assists per 90. However, taking the other categories into account, Milik is a lot more involved in Napoli’s build-up play. The Nigerian tended to predominantly threaten in behind, and made himself more useful chasing down clearances than acting as a pivot for passes.
Napoli’s attacking play
Not that Napoli play a lot through the middle anyway.
Napoli do not tend to assist the striker via through balls. This is because their build-up is typically slow; under Gattuso, their playing out is even more methodical and risk-averse than it was under Maurizio Sarri. Just like under their former manager, they seek to draw opponents forward and bait the press (they attempted the most passes while under pressure from an opponent in Serie A); however, Gattuso does not push the full-backs forward early during the first phase. This is probably to minimize the danger from potential turnovers.
Once they get out, they will usually seek to gain entry into the final third through wider areas rather than progressing centrally. No team in Serie A plays more switches of play than Napoli, and they attempted more crosses more than any other team in the league. For the most part, however, those crosses are either cut-backs from close to the byline or low balls whipped in; Milik gives them the option to float balls into the box, but it is not a staple of their approach.
There is a distinct difference in the sort of service Osimhen thrived on at Lille and the type that Napoli typically supplies. This chalkboard captures it quite handily.
Assists for the Nigerian at Lille tended to come over longer distances, from deeper areas and played in behind the opposing defence. Only one arrived via cut-back, three following low crosses from an advancing full-back, and one came from a corner. By contrast, the assists for Milik’s and Mertens’ goals are almost exclusively cut-backs and square passes.
The exceptions to these were Milik’s goal against Atalanta, and Mertens’ goals against Liverpool and Genk in the Champions League. Incidentally, all were scored under Ancelotti – the Everton boss was, at the time, aggressively trying to transition away from the Sarri model, and had Napoli playing a 4-4-2 shape. Suffice to say it did not work, and indeed the very first thing Gattuso did upon taking over was to revert to the tried-and-trusted 4-3-3.
While Osimhen certainly has the composure to finish off the sort of cut-backs that Napoli’s strikers thrive upon, it is worth noting that, when he has scored off low cross from out wide, he has almost always needed to check his run. Often, scoring into an open goal is maligned, but the element of timing and anticipation when the ball is played out wide is crucial to arriving in the right place and also to avoid straying offside due to over-enthusiasm.
Napoli’s defensive set-up
Without the ball, Napoli were a strong pressing side under Sarri, pushing all the lines of the team high in order to suffocate the opponent and force turnovers.
That has changed with Gattuso in charge. Napoli still press high in the final third – more than any other team in the league. However, once that pressure is bypassed, the midfield does not step up as a safety net. Instead, the team drops its lines and retreats into a solid but mostly passive 4-1-4-1/4-5-1 shape inside its own half. This is a somewhat surprising approach, especially considering that Kostas Manolas and Kalidou Koulibaly are two of the more competent defenders in space, and have the pace to compete in a foot race with most opposing forwards. This is clearly not a matter of expedience, but of preference. Gattuso wants them to play this way.
When it works, it can be very effective. Barcelona found this out the hard way in their Round of 16 first leg Champions League meeting at San Paolo, and it is an approach that is suited to frustrating bigger sides. In this regard, the evidence of their Coppa run is convincing.
The concern is that, against “weaker” sides, this leaves them unable to either impress their will on proceedings or take the game away from their opponent. The perfect illustration of this problem can be seen in their games against Parma, to whom they lost 2-1 at both San Paolo and Ennio Tardini. In both encounters, Napoli fell behind, came back into it when forced to chase an equalizer, then failed to press their superiority and got punished by late Dejan Kulusevski goals. As it happens, Parma attempted the second-fewest passes in Serie A this past season.
Against Brescia (bottom both of the league and attempted passes tables), Napoli laboured to a 2-1 win, coming from behind and giving up 10 shots (seven from inside their own penalty area). Matches like these, against weaker teams whose approaches are not focused on ball retention, have tended to be more difficult for Napoli than they needed to be.
In terms of pressing in the final third, as has already been established, Osimhen is a natural fit, and should do very well in that respect.
The Gattuso factor
Beyond making the team more secure during build-up and out-of-possession, it is difficult to articulate, in concrete terms, precisely what Gattuso’s attacking ideas are as Napoli manager.
He took over during a quite extraordinary crisis, which could explain the team’s underperformance under the previous manager. It must be remembered that Napoli are not underdogs within the context of Serie A; 2019/20 is the first time in five years that the club have finished outside the top three. They also sank significant funds into signing Stanislav Lobotka and Diego Demme in January to bolster the midfield, and brought in Matteo Politano on loan from Inter.
All that is to posit that, while he deserves some credit for getting the team to return to playing closer to their overall level of quality, Gattuso has hardly left a strong imprint on this group’s attacking play.
A counterargument is that he has not had the time to, which is fair enough. Also in his defence is the fact he has toughened up a club that, in previous years, was considered to have a soft-ish underbelly mentally. Their run to victory in the Coppa showcased a cannier side to Napoli that has not always been there: there is the boldness to play, but also an edge and determination to (when the occasion demands it) sit in and be defiant.
That alone is unlikely to be enough over the course of a season, however. It is an approach suited to cups, which are primarily a test of mentality, whereas a league campaign tests processes and methodology.
As we established earlier, Napoli may have signed an almost perfect like-for-like replacement for Milik, but that alone does not (and should not) justify a club-record outlay. Clearly, De Laurentiis is betting on Osimhen’s upside; if he is already on the Pole’s level at 21, imagine what he could be at the same age. Volume, yes, but also a wider range of abilities.
That right there is the crux of the matter: if he is going to be worth it, Napoli need Osimhen to improve rapidly. Is Gattuso the man for that job?
Sure, the former Milan terrier was excited for him to join (even offering to take a wage cut if it would accelerate the deal), and he will no doubt be good for the striker’s mentality and tactical understanding of the game. However, in terms of technique, movement and even finishing, there is little evidence that Gattuso is the sort of coach to work with the player toward improving those qualities.
Christophe Galtier, under whom Osimhen came on in leaps and bounds, was. Also, Ligue 1 afforded him the perfect testing ground; for instance, watch his games at Lille, and the moment when he added chipped finishes to his repertoire is actually clear enough to observe. He began to use it every chance he got after missing a one-on-one in the 3-0 win over Monaco in the Coupe de la Ligue in December, and scored three of his next four open play goals by lifting the ball over the goalkeeper.
It is also just as clear when his hold-up play began to come on and he started to play with his back to goal with greater efficacy.
He is unlikely to get that sort of leeway for experimentation in Naples. While this is a good move for the profile of the player and Nigerian football in general, in the long term it might, at best, bequeath to us a more prolific striker (inevitable as he matures physically), rather than the seminal, versatile one we had begun to expect.