Where Did It All Go Wrong for Defending Champions Napoli?

When Napoli captain Giovanni Di Lorenzo climbed to the podium to lift the Scudetto last term, it was perhaps the most memorable outpouring of joy Serie A has witnessed in the 21st century. Inspired by the tactical ingenuity of Luciano Spalletti and the unmatched scoring prowess of Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, the Partenopei steamrolled to their first league title in 33 years.

Napoli reigned supreme in Serie A last season, leaving runners-up Lazio 16 points behind in one of the most dominant campaigns in the division’s recent history. Everything seemed to be going their way. 

Osimhen finally lived up to his stratospheric price tag, raining goals at an unprecedented rate en route to lifting his first Capocannoniere award.

An unknown entity from Georgia took Europe by storm. In his first season in elite football, Kvaratskhelia established himself among the most sought-after prospects in top-five leagues, let alone Serie A. 

Kim Min-jae came from Fenerbahce to replace Kalidou Koulibaly and ended up overshadowing the former Napoli skipper. The South Korean defender went from an anonymous signing to arguably the most solid center-back in Serie A.

So how come the wheels fell off so hastily?

Spalletti Had a Good Reason for Calling Time on His Napoli tenure

Spalletti and Napoli parted ways immediately after conquering the league. While the official statement tried to deceive the public by saying the breakup was mutual, it soon became apparent that something else was happening behind the scenes. 

In stark contrast to Spalletti’s effort to convince people that he needed a sabbatical following an emotionally exhausting campaign, the experienced coach delved back into the realm of management almost instantaneously, replacing Roberto Mancini at the helm of Italy. 

But more importantly, Aurelio De Laurentiis seemingly had no clue how to fill Spalletti’s shoes. Rudi Garcia’s appointment caught the Napoli faithful by surprise, especially considering the Frenchman’s ill-fated stints at Marseille and Lyon after unceremoniously leaving Roma in 2016.

On top of that, Garcia had to deal with a turbulent summer. 

Uneventful Recruitment Campaign

Min-jae’s switch to Bayern Munich was the first sign of the dissolution of the Scudetto-winning squad. Despite earning a small fortune from their star defender’s transfer, Napoli went for another ‘Hail Mary’ type of signing in the form of Natan. 

In his defense, the Brazilian youngster has shown plenty of promise during his early days at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. However, his arrival can never make up for Min-jae’s leadership skills. Maybe at some point in the future, but not now. 

Even during the final stretch of Spalletti’s regime, Kvaratskhelia’s form curve had hit a downward trajectory. The 22-year-old winger had an underwhelming second half of last season, prompting ‘one season wonder’ talks. Fast forward a few months, and the assessment looks on the money.

While Spalletti had Kvaratskhelia at his best to bail him out of troubled situations, the Georgian has been part of the problem during Garcia’s disappointing tenure. He has developed a habit of wasting chances he would’ve put away blindfolded in 2022/23. 

Napoli had an opportunity to cash in on their prized asset in the summer and make a substantial profit in the process. But De Laurentiis refused to discuss his exit. What he’s got in return? A toxic atmosphere in the dressing room and an underperforming superstar. 

If that’s not enough, Garcia has had to constantly alter his attacking set-up amid Osimhen’s injury-hit start to the season. Giacomo Raspadori and Giovanni Simeone are decent options, but their scoring output comes nowhere near the Nigerian’s high standard.

Strokes of Bad Luck

It’s official – Inter’s win over Frosinone on Sunday night means Napoli head into the international break a whopping ten points adrift of the table’s summit. The reigning champions have won just 50% of their Serie A matches under Garcia (W6, D3, L3). But it’s unfathomable how they’ve dropped points in some matches. 

Let’s take the Milan game as an example. The Partenopei were 2-0 down at halftime and seemed ready to roll over. However, it only took them 15 minutes into the second half to bounce back and take control of the proceedings. 

Mike Maignan’s stoppage-time heroics denied Napoli a win. But Kvaratskhelia failed to convert a chance he would’ve bagged in his sleep last season. The Georgian let his side down again this Sunday as he came off the bench to miss a catalog of opportunities. 

Etrit Berisha frustrated the quicksilver forward with superb saves, which eventually backfired on Napoli as Empoli stunned the Maradona into silence with a shock 1-0 win. How can you blame Garcia for that? The manager did his part to a tee.

He introduced Kvaratskhelia early in the second half when Empoli were on the ropes, but his talisman shot him in the foot. Napoli boasted 65% possession and had 18 attempts on goal, including seven on target, yet they didn’t score.

Kvaratskhelia’s selfishness cost Napoli dearly in a 1-1 draw against Union Berlin in their last Champions League outing. Like in the abovementioned matches, the Partenopei were in firm control but couldn’t put the ball into the back of the net despite creating numerous presentable chances. Whose fault was that?

What Now?

Well, it looks like De Laurentiis has made up his mind. In all likelihood, Garcia will not be in charge when Napoli take a trip to Bergamo to face Atalanta in two weeks’ time. It’s said that former Hellas Verona coach Igor Tudor is the front-runner for the job

Football has no mercy for underachievers. While it’s hard to defend Garcia with any real conviction, it’s scandalous to put all the blame on him. 

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