Archive for the ‘Napoli’ Category

Swansea City v SSC Napoli - UEFA Europa League Second Round First Leg

Last Thursday, Napoli travelled to Swansea City and played out a 0-0 draw in the Europa League.

It is difficult to judge a first leg goalless draw in European competition: traditionally a draw is a good result for the away side, but a 0-0 leaves them exposed to a score draw in the return match, which would result in their elimination.

As such, the reaction to the result varied significantly across the British press. The Sky Sports website, for example, led with “Swansea earned a hugely creditable 0-0 home draw with Napoli”. The Guardian, in stark contrast, headlined their match report “Rafael Benítez masterminds first-leg stalemate.” One suggests Swansea deserve credit, the other insists Napoli and Benitez achieved something particularly impressive. The truth is somewhere in between.

The latter headline is particularly interesting – in any normal sense of the word, Benitez’s wasn’t really ‘masterminding’ anything. Think about the situation: the Serie A runners-up, packed with an array of multimillion pound players and a European specialist as coach, travelling to meet an off-form side who qualified for this competition by beating Bradford City, with a complete unknown as coach. Napoli are a powerhouse of European football, Swansea still an underdog.

Besides, if you saw the match, Napoli were extraordinarily lucky to collect a draw. They were under significant pressure for long spells, recorded one shot on target, and were reliant upon not one, but two, excellent goalkeeping displays to keep them in the tie, with Pepe Reina replacing Rafael at half-time. Napoli unquestionably arrived in Wales with a reactive, counter-attacking mindset, and Swansea’s possession dominance was unsurprising – but Napoli conceded far too many chances and barely created anything themselves.

Yet a fortunate 0-0 draw against a significantly weaker side was termed a masterclass. Now, this isn’t a criticism of the headline itself (not least as I’m a contributor to that particular newspaper) because headline writing is an extraordinarily difficult task, as much about SEO as providing an accurate summary or witty pun. However, it sums up how Benitez’s managerial style has grown into something of a caricature – any acceptable result, especially in Europe, is attributed to his genius as a strategist.

There is, very basically, a linear scale ranging from ‘tactical genius’ at one end, to ‘man manager and motivator’ at the other, which summarizes how various managers are depicted. Some managers are both. Others are neither. But ask 10 football fans to place the likes of Benitez, Harry Redknapp, Andre Villas-Boas, Brian Clough and Martin O’Neill on the scale, and you’d get very similar answers.

Benitez would probably be at the wrong end, however, because it sometimes it feels like everyone has completely forgotten the nature of his greatest achievements. His European Cup with Liverpool in 2005, for example, was clinched in extraordinary circumstances – an unthinkable comeback against a vastly superior Milan side (both on paper, and on that evening in Istanbul). English teams never win the European Cup in style, they triumph in a manner that feels like a self-parody of the ‘grit and determination’ they’re supposedly meant to embody.

Benitez’s FA Cup triumph a year later was similarly astonishing. With Liverpool 3-2 down going into injury time, having stuttered against an average, midtable West Ham side featuring the likes of Carl Fletcher and (look away, Liverpool fans) Paul Konchesky, they kept going and going and going, until Steven Gerrard produced one of the all-time FA Cup final goals. For the second time under Benitez, Liverpool won a major trophy on penalties, a test of nerve and composure.

Benitez’s Europa League triumph with Chelsea last season was similarly dramatic, with defeated Benfica manager Jorge Jesus almost speechless at the injustice of the result. “For most of the 90 minutes Benfica were better – better organized, technically and tactically superior to a very strong Chelsea side,” he complained. However, Chelsea had belief and faith in themselves (something lacking at Benfica after they’d blown the league title against Porto a few days before, and because of their infamously poor record in European finals). Branislav Ivanovic headed the winner in stoppage time.

It’s better to be lucky than good, as someone once remarked. However, these victories weren’t purely lucky: they’ve happened too frequently to subscribe Benitez’s career to fortune. The victories had a similar quality – they showed fighting spirit, never-say-die attitude and incredible self-belief. This is what Benitez instils in his sides.

If Benitez was as tactically skilled as the caricature suggests, he wouldn’t have needed to completely restructure his side in 2005. Playing without a holding midfielder against Milan—the most creative side in Europe—was bizarre, although his Plan B was unquestionably brilliant. Similarly, it wasn’t strategic brilliance to rely upon Steven Gerrard’s astonishing long-range effort a year later against West Ham, and his tactical approach against Benfica last season was only a minor part of Chelsea’s triumph.

On the evidence of the last ten years, the major quality Benitez brings to his club, not dissimilar to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, is self-confidence, even when the chips are down. He makes his squad disciplined, focused and together.

This means, incidentally, that the Spaniard is perfectly suited to Napoli – who were often tactically brilliant under his predecessor Walter Mazzarri, but desperately lacked a winning mentality.  They had a dressing room celebration, for example, when they clinched second place last year, despite the fact they were vaguely in a two-horse race with Juventus for the title, rather than a plucky outsider gunning for European Cup qualification. Some mocked Arsenal when they partied after clinching fourth place, but having spent the majority of the campaign in lower positions fighting their way up through the league, it was a more understandable reaction. Napoli were never going to finish lower than second, but acted like heroes when it happened anyway. That has to change, and under Benitez, it gradually will.

In football, the consensus about an individual doesn’t changes once an individual is typecast, because it’s simply easier to play along. Take Toronto’s signing of Jermain Defoe, whose departure from English football prompted glowing appraisals of his role as a natural-born finisher. The common wisdom is that Defoe is superb in front of goal, but never developed his all-round game.

Yet often, the complete opposite has been true – Defoe’s all-round game has improved, but his finishing has been poor. Under Harry Redknapp, Defoe unselfishly dropped off Peter Crouch and made up the numbers in midfield to shift Spurs from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1, precisely the sort of thing a ‘pure finisher’ doesn’t do. In a recent game against Sunderland, Defoe recorded a 97% pass completion rate and created two chances – yet failed to test the goalkeeper from any of his six attempts.

Is this a natural born finisher? Not really. Besides, his finishing is erratic: he often blasts the ball as hard as possible, rather than taking chances coolly. Only once has he scored more than 13 goals in a league campaign. Yet he’s still categorized as a pure finisher, because that’s what he was over a decade ago at West Ham.

It’s similar with Benitez. His tactical ability is less crucial to his managerial style than his skill in managing the mood of the group: an attribute arguably more important, and almost certainly more difficult to teach. Yet he’s still depicted as he chess player, the thinker, the methodologist.

Maybe this a complete façade, and Benitez is deliberately projecting an entirely false image to trick opposition coaches. Perhaps this is the mind game to end all mind games.

Whatever the truth, it’s undeniable that Benitez’s ability to win trophies at various clubs, in various situations, demonstrates that he’s a very fine manager – just in a completely different way than we’ve been led to believe.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-NAPOLI-BENITEZ

If only all club presidents were as candid (and, in truth, interesting) as Napoli’s Aurelio de Laurentiis. He gave his full and honest assessment of the circumstances behind the sale of Edinson Cavani today, including his release clause:

“If it wasn’t for that clause, I wouldn’t have sold him, not even for €70 million,” he said. “It’s a question of principle. You can’t just go around buying everything – it’s ethically wrong. The problem is these clubs are sponsored by companies who flaunt absurd sums of money.

“As for Cavani, we’ve had to raise his salary each year, reaching a level higher than that which Bayern Munich’s top players earn.

“Then he starts saying he wants to leave, and I told him to insert a release clause, which happened last July. I’m sure Real Madrid, Manchester City and Chelsea would never have spent €63 million.”

Note de Laurentiis didn’t say “backed by owners who flaunt absurd sums of money.” The Napoli president’s remarks signal the first major battleground in Financial Fair Play, the one thing that could very well render it useless: UEFA’s failure to critically assess whether club sponsorship deals, like PSG’s three figure deal with Emirates airlines re-upped this past May, were negotiated in good faith at market value.

However de Laurentiis is likely barking up the wrong tree with PSG, as this Reuters report from last May indicates:

According to media reports, the agreement was worth around 25 million euros a year, still significantly below the more lucrative shirt sponsorship deals in the English Premier League.

In other words, it’s not that big a deal as far as payola contracts are concerned. Nor is there anything preventing Napoli from aggressively seeking a more lucrative sponsorship partner than Lete and MSC, a bottled water company and cruise line respectively. Surely some middling popularity amid a few Champions League seasons might be enough to up the ante.

At some point aggrieved clubs have to cast off their “David” image and realize the game’s done changed.

Uruguay v Italy: 3rd Place Match - FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013

Paris Saint-Germain have reportedly bid ~€59 million for Napoli’s Edinson Cavani. The kicker though is Napoli have set a €63 million release clause for the Uruguayan international. Hey there ناصر بن غانم الخليفي if you’re reading this, why not simply give Leonardo the missing €4 million and get things rolling?

There may be a host of possible answers to that tantalizing question (if you’re the type of person who finds these things tantalizing), but one answer is that PSG considers €63 million is simply too high a valuation. Shocking stuff. And probably not the right answer.

If PSG’s backers were to negotiate with Napoli over this relatively small amount, what recourse would they have to deliberately low-ball on the release clause? There may be a few things. What might help would be some sort of objective look at whether Napoli’s valuation is totally batshit insane to begin with.

Yesterday I wrote an, erm, review of the CIES Football Observatory’s Annual Review. I drew specific attention to their final section on economic value—simply put, the authors used their own algorithm based on a host of performative and historical factors to come up with a baseline transfer value.

Now, I’m on the record as a believer in the concept that “market rate” is simply a function of what someone is willing to pay for something. So whatever Cavani eventually goes for will be his “real” transfer value. However, that shouldn’t prevent analytics firms for trying to come up with a reasonable, empirically-based transfer value to keep things kind of sensible.

Okay, so the magic number: what does CIES think Cavani is worth? €58.3 to €67.8 million. So no, Napoli are not insane. And neither, crucially are PSG.

So what follows is some mega speculomasturbation, but my hunch is that PSG knows Aurelio de Laurentiis’ valuation has scared off some big name suitors, leaving only Real Madrid left to make a possible bid. They likely know they’re within Cavani’s “actual” valuation, and that Napoli might have reasonable grounds not to quibble over 4 million should Real Madrid decide spending that much money on a single player wouldn’t be worth it.

Both parties have recourse to third party evidence that they’re within their “right minds.” While I personally think spending nearly €60 million mortgaging your future away on a single player is about as stupid as you can get, the price is right.

FC Bayern Muenchen VfB Stuttgart - DFB Cup Final

With the Neymar saga complete the transfer mongers have shifted their sights to Bayern Munich’s Mario Gomez. Bild is reporting the German striker is on his way to Napoli, which means Edinson Cavani is most probably leaving. In terms of dominoes this is a big one, with Cavani looking to get some of that Falcao money.

In all competitions this season Gomez recorded 23 goals on 33 shots on target in 18 starts. Croatian Mario Mandzukic ate into his playing time, making the man with the best button in the whole world an expendable piece for the treble winners.

More to come as news develops. Bild’s reputation, while dicey, was bolstered after breaking the Goetze news.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-AS ROMA-NAPOLI

No sooner had the football ended, than the band began to play. ‘Il valzer delle panchine’ – ‘the waltz of the benches’ – is one of the more colourful idioms used by Italians to describe the string of managerial sackings and appointments that takes place in the country every summer.

That phrase might even reflect a little of the national mindset. Where English managers are left at the mercy of a mechanical ‘merry-go-round’, their Italian counterparts are thought to hold some kind of control. They might not get to call the tunes, but they can at least determine where their footsteps take them.

One manager, indeed, has already shown off some bold moves this summer. Walter Mazzarri could have led Napoli back into the Champions League next season after steering them to a second-place finish in Serie A. Instead he two-stepped away with Inter, a team which finished ninth this year after losing a dismal 16 games.

Mazzarri had been mulling this switch over for more than 12 months, ever since discovering last spring that the Inter owner, Massimo Moratti, was a keen admirer of his work. The newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport reported that the manager had even phoned up one unnamed journalist with connections at Inter in the hopes of gleaning a little insight into the owner’s plans for the club.

The Nerazzurri had sacked Claudio Ranieri in March of 2012, and were expected to seek out a full-time replacement in the summer. Instead Moratti gave the job to his former youth team coach Andrea Stramaccioni, who had impressed during a brief stint as caretaker manager. Mazzarri, after weeks of stalling, confirmed his intention to stay with Napoli just two days after Stramaccioni’s deal was signed.

Quite why the Inter job appealed so strongly is a subject that Mazzarri has not yet discussed. The manager has declined to speak about his new club in advance of his introductory press conference, which should take place sometime in the next few days. But it has not escaped the public’s attention that Napoli finished above Inter in each of the last two seasons.
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Chelsea v Everton - Premier League

Well, that was a lot quicker than the last time. So basically Benitez is kind of like the Harvey Keitel character in Pulp Fiction, Mr. Wolf. Someone leaves a legacy but in the process makes a bit of a mess at the end, and he just sort of swoops in and cleans up.

Total opportunist. Anyway, in case you’re catching up: Inter sack Stramaccioni, hire Walter Mazzari from Inter, Rafa goes to Napoli. Deck chairs shuffled. What it means for any of these teams…well. I think Inter kind of win here. Rafa’s not really a project man, and Napoli have become a project club.

Cavani
Good on these Napoli fans for leaving the guy some food and water.

Image via Matt Barker