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Napoli’s New Look Midfield

Napoli were a huge disappointment last season. After a transition year under Rafa Benitez, the team, now supposedly fully adapted to his style and system, had been anticipated to push on and seriously challenge Juventus. Instead they regressed by 15 points and finished 5th.

A combination of factors were to blame, but it shouldn’t be underestimated how damaging it was that Napoli got off on the wrong foot. The decision to wait until after the Champions League play-off with Athletic Club to invest with any ambition revealed itself to be a huge mistake.

Encouragingly steps have been taken this summer to complete Napoli’s incomplete squad and correct some of the mistakes in tactical dogma made by Benitez. Reina has been brought back. His only season at Napoli was by no means perfect. The veteran dropped a few clangers but he kept 13 clean sheets in Serie A, a number Rafael and Andujar didn’t improve upon (9 between them) last term. Not only does Reina represent a safer pair of hands – his shot-to-save ratio of 77.4% was only bettered by Gigi Buffon and Morgan de Sanctis in the 2013/14 season – the Spaniard is also a leader and helps keep spirits high, a significant problem in his absence.

The defence, which ranked 12th in Serie A last season, still needs work. Napoli conceded 54 times, a figure 15 goals higher than the previous year. Understandably, they are pursuing a centre-back. Davide Astori’s move has stalled while bigger offers for better players like Alessio Romagnoli and Nikola Maksimovic have been rejected. After missing out on Matteo Darmian, a right-back remains a priority too.

New coach Maurizio Sarri is expected to make a big difference here as well. Empoli’s low budget and no frills backline outdid Napoli’s last season. Hailed for how in-sync it was as a unit and with the shape of the team as a whole, there has been great curiosity about Sarri’s use of a drone to film training from above so he can show the players whether their positioning is correct or not.

The biggest improvements have been made in midfield. Allan will bring bite to it. He made the most tackles in Serie A last season (162), 54 more than any other player (Juan Jesus with 108) and was second only to N’Golo Kante (176) in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Mirko Valdifiori will give it a sense of direction and imagination. No one created more chances than he did during the previous campaign (89) nor did anyone record more assists (6) from set pieces, which gives another edge and dimension to Sarri’s game-plan. Sarri is renowned for keeping a little black book with 33 original set-piece routines. Only Fiorentina (21), Lazio (16) and Torino (15) scored more from these situations than Empoli (14) last season.