The 2013-14 season has seen Napoli begin a new era under coach Rafael Benitez and the arrival of several new players.
The Spanish tactician was chosen by club president Aurelio De Laurentiis in the summer to replace Inter-bound Walter Mazzarri and the Partenopei heavily reinvested the €64.5 million brought in by the sale of Edinson Cavani to Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain, by signing Real Madrid trio Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Albiol and Jose Callejon as well as Dries Mertens, from PSV Eindhoven, and Pepe Reina on loan from Liverpool.
The new coach and players started the season well with Benitez guiding the club to their best ever start in Serie A. This early season form brought a renewed sense of optimism at the Stadio San Paolo, however an injury to Marek Hamsik and an increasingly poor defensive record has seen Napoli slip 10 points behind league leaders Juventus at the halfway point. The Azzurri currently occupy third place and are three points ahead of fourth placed Fiorentina.
Napoli also exited the Champions League at the group phase, despite finishing joint top of their group with Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal on 12 points. The Vesuviani will now compete in the Europa League heading into the second half of the season.
Tactical shifts/changes: 3-5-2 to 4-2-3-1
Napoli have ditched the 3-5-2 formation that was customary under former coach Walter Mazzarri with Benitez bringing in his 4-2-3-1 system that he has used throughout his coaching career.
While the formation has changed, Napoli remain one of the most exciting attacking sides in Serie A and still look at their best on the counter-attack as was the case under Mazzarri.
However the transition to a four-man defence has caused problems for wing-backs Christian Maggio and Juan Zuniga/Pablo Armero as they have been forced to play as full-backs. With both full-backs preferring to attack over defending, opposition teams have been able to exploit the space between the Napoli holding midfielders and defence on too many occasions so far this season.
Star Performer so far: Jose Callejon
The 26-year-old wide attacker has been an under-rated addition following his €10m move from Real Madrid last summer. The Spaniard is believed to have been specifically requested by Benitez and was reportedly signed in preference over Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. This faith has been repaid with Callejon scoring eight goals in 17 matches in Serie A so far this season, only one less than star striker Gonzalo Higuain in the league.
Worst performer: Anthony Reveillere
While Anthony Reveillere has only made three appearances so far for Napoli, the 34-year-old exemplifies the weaknesses that the Vesuviani have defensively. The former Rennes, Valencia and Lyon full-back was recruited as a free agent in November to provide cover but has failed to impress during his short stay at the club.
Napoli have conceded an average of two goals per game with Reveillere in the side.
Transfer of the season so far: Rafael Benitez
Despite reportedly spending almost €80m on transfers during the summer, Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis believes that his biggest acquisition was Rafael Benitez:
“The fans always ask me for new players, but the best investment a club can make is its coach. Our best signing of the season is Benitez,” the movie mogul explained to Radio Kiss Kiss..
While the former Valencia, Liverpool, Inter and Chelsea coach can divide opinion, the Madrid-born tactician has a proven record of delivering silverware having won ten major trophies in 12 years.
Milestone moment: 2-1 Champions League win against Borussia Dortmund
The 2-1 win over last season’s Champions League finalists in the opening match of the group phase was a highlight of Napoli’s early season form and signaled their intent as a side that can compete in both Serie A and Europe. This was shown as the Partenopei won five and only lost one game after their six Champions League matches this season.
The performance of local favourite Lorenzo Insigne, who scored a brilliant 30-yard free-kick in the Dortmund victory, was also a personal milestone moment for the youngster. The 22-year-old will be looking to replicate this kind of performance during the second half of the season.
What needs to happen in the second half of the season
While Benitez will be reasonably pleased with the first six months of his Napoli reign, the tactician will feel that there is plenty of room for improvement throughout his side. In particular, the Vesuviani still have a lot of problems defensively and are expected to be active in the January transfer market to address this issue that has remained unresolved since the summer.
Napoli will also need to take near to maximum points from a favourable run of fixtures in January and February in order to ensure that they keep pace at the top of the Serie A table. The Partenopei have to make home advantage count against many of their direct rivals as the Stadio San Paolo hosts Roma, Fiorentina and Juventus during the second half of the season.
The return of playmaker and talisman Marek Hamsik from long-term injury will be vital for the fortunes of the Azzurri as the Slovakian international had been in fantastic form prior to suffering a foot injury in November.
Benitez was convinced to take the Napoli job by the prospect of building a team that can compete for trophies. While the Scudetto seems increasingly unlikely this season, the Coppa Italia and Europa League provide the Partenopei with a great opportunity to secure silverware.