By Swaraj Shil
In Serie A this season, it looks like a team outside of the traditional big three may end up claiming the Scudetto. Napoli has emerged as the best team in Italy this season, playing with a swashbuckling style that has set them apart from their peers. So far, their results have been at par with their performances. After 20 games, the Partenopei have a healthy 13-point cushion over second-place Inter Milan. Their lead is the largest at this stage of a season since the 1994/95 season when the league started to record three points for a win.
In Italy, soccer is one of the best sports with the greatest number of fans. Napoli has some of the country's most dedicated fans. Judging by their team's performance up to this stage of the season, it is hard for them not to engage in talks about winning the title after their impressive first half of the season. Napoli has won 17, drawn two and lost just one of their 20 matches this season, picking up 53 points. Their most recent win against AS Roma showed why they are at the summit of the standings this season. After being pegged back late in the game, the team had the character to find a late winner through one of their substitutes to pick up the win. Over the years, the fans have shown their support for the team. They may be rewarded this season with a first Scudetto since 1990 when Diego Maradona inspired the club to a league title and stamped his name in the club's folklore.
What makes Napoli so good this season?
In this segment, we will explore some factors contributing to Napoli's being so good this season.
In the last decade, Napoli has been a team that has always pushed the league's top sides in every season. This season, however, the Partenopei have played better than every team in Serie A and possibly in Europe. According to stats from Fbref.com, they have scored 48 goals in the league this season from an xG (Expected Goals) tally of 38.2, significantly overperforming their total. Much of this may be attributed to the quality of their attacking displays and the personnel at their disposal. Manager Luciano Spalletti has managed to get the best out of big-money striker Victor Osimhen, with the Nigerian striker finding the net 14 times in only 16 matches to lead the race for the Capocannoniere. Also, the club's acquisition of talented Georgian winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has made the transition from the Lorenzo Insigne-era seamless. Kvaratskhelia has found the net seven times and provided eight assists this season, leading the league in assists. This dynamic pair has shown great adaptability in attack and plays a starring role for the side.
Similarly, they have kept things tight at the back, conceding only 15 goals from an xG total of 17.9 for their opponents. Before the start of the season, the club lost defensive lynchpin Kalidou Koulibaly to Chelsea but quickly carried out a shrewd piece of business to sign Kim Min-Jae from Fenerbahce. Signing the Korean has proven to be one of the club's best bits of business in recent years. He is strong, comfortable on the ball, fast, good at duels and dominant in the air.
Napoli got it right with recruitment in every major position this season, adding quality and depth to their squad. The team has the likes of Giacomo Raspadori, Giovanni Simeone, Tanguy Ndombele, Hirving Lozano and Eljif Elmas as options from the bench, showing their impressive squad depth. Their regulars and fringe players have contributed greatly to the team's performance over the season so far. The combination of a quality attack and defence is a major factor in Napoli's success this season.
In previous seasons, Napoli struggled to perform consistently, especially when faced with some of the league's elite teams. The team has faced no such problems this season as they dispatched Juventus with ease, beat AS Roma twice and AC Milan once. They only lost narrowly to Inter Milan and have since bounced back from the defeat. They have shown great resilience and mental toughness, which is why they are the best team in Italy.
A great deal of focus must also be placed on the manager's performance. Spalletti replaced Gennaro Gattuso as manager in May 2021 and immediately set to work. He created an exciting brand of football that has been lauded by fans and observers alike. He managed to get the best out of Osimhen, utilising the full potential of the striker to stretch games and leave opponents wondering how possible it is to transition from defence to offence so rapidly. He has also formed a solid group in which all players recognise that they have key roles to play, regardless of the number of minutes they get. The former Inter Milan manager has also instilled a belief in his charges that they can achieve what they want. This has been seen in the inspired performances they put out weekly.
Why will Napoli continue in first place this season?
Napoli has maintained very high standards this season, which has set them apart from the other teams in Serie A. In addition to the factors that have helped them reach the summit of the league standings, other external factors have contributed to their success and will keep them poised for a first league title in 33 years.
The most important external factor is the instability of the other top sides in the league. Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan have won the league title in the past three seasons and failed to defend their crown in subsequent years. While they have remained relatively solid in those seasons, they have failed to do the same this season.
Juventus are in 13th place in the league after receiving a 15-point penalty for financial irregularities. They also saw their entire board step down midway through the season, leaving the club in a state of confusion. Inter Milan and AC Milan have not been at their best in the Italian Serie A this season. Both sides have had several injury problems to contend with this season. They have seen their best players perform well below their standards. Because of these problems, Napoli has not had a team put up a sustained challenge to their title assault this season. In the January 2023 transfer window, Juventus and both Milan teams failed to strengthen their squads, denying themselves of important depth to any challenge on Napoli.
Another factor is that Napoli has been knocked out of Coppa Italia, reducing the load on their players. One less competition means the manager manages his squad better and gets the best out of them for the rest of the season. Barring a catastrophic meltdown, it is difficult to see Napoli ceding the top spot in Serie A. AS Roma manager Jose Mourinho already congratulated the side in advance as Scudetto winners in a press conference. As things stand, Napoli will continue in first place this season. With a manager who knows his onions and players this motivated, they will continue to strengthen their grip on the first place and end their 33-year wait for the league title.