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Evolution or Revolution – Napoli

 

Welcome to Evolution or Revolution, the Stats Perform off-season series where we analyse three areas with room for improvement for sides across Serie A. Some teams only need small tweaks in areas of their play, but for others, wholesale revolution is required. This piece focuses on Napoli, who will be looking to secure a place back in the top six.

 

By: Silvio Mastroianni

Improving Decision Making In Front Of Goal

Napoli finished the last campaign in seventh, the first time they have finished outside the top six in Serie A since the 2008/9 season.

The club parted company with Carlo Ancelotti mid-season, just six months after he led the side to the league runners-up spot. However, whilst Napoli scored thirteen fewer league goals in 2019/20 compared to the previous campaign, there was very little difference in their non-penalty xG output – 58.2 last term compared to 59.6 in 2018/19.

Napoli overperformed on their non-penalty xG by over 10 goals when they finished second, however they underperformed on xG by 3.2 last season. So,  despite their drop in goal output, the underlying numbers suggest that Napoli simply reverted back to the mean in 2019/20 based on the quality of chances they have been creating.

However, the xG outputs do not tell the full story. Whilst Napoli ranked fifth in Serie A for open play xG, they attempted 533 open play shots, more than any other team, including the league’s top scorers Atalanta. However, as we can see from their shot-map from last season, they attempted a high volume of low probability attempts from distance.

If we include blocked shots, Napoli attempted 304 shots from outside the box in 2019/20, which in part resulted in them recording the fifth lowest shot conversion rate in the competition.

It is worth noting that Napoli have been one of the more unfortunate teams in Europe when it comes to near misses – since the start of season 2018/19, they are the only team across the big-five European leagues to have hit the woodwork over 50 times.

Last season was the first campaign since 2011/12 where only one Napoli player scored at least 10 Serie A goals, Arkadiusz Milik with 11, and Napoli have looked to address their goalscoring woes by recruiting Victor Osimhen from Lille. The Nigerian was the third youngest striker to score more than ten goals across the big five leagues last season, netting 13 in total.

Whilst he was unable to match his xG output, his shot map shows that he tended to refrain from shooting from low probability locations, an approach which some of his new teammates could benefit from in 2020/21.

Stats Perform Verdict: Evolution Required

Settling On A First Choice Goalkeeper

Whilst Napoli’s goal scoring output fell roughly in line with their xG last season, the same cannot be said for their performance defensively. Of the teams who finished in the league’s top ten, only Sassuolo (38) conceded more goals from open play than Napoli’s 37 – and in total Napoli kept 50% fewer clean sheets compared to the previous season (7 vs 14).

Gennaro Gattuso’s side conceded nearly seven more goals from open play than their xG projection, suggesting a potential weakness in their goalkeeping department. In fact, the numbers suggest this has been a problem for the past two years.

In the summer of 2018, Napoli recruited three keepers, then-Italian U21 international Alex Meret, Colombian David Ospina and Greek veteran Orestis Karnezis. All three keepers featured in at least nine league matches in 2018/19, with Ospina seeing the highest proportion of on-field minutes: 43%.

Karnezis departed last summer, however neither Meret or Ospina have been able to cement their position as the club’s undisputed number one, with both having spells in and out of the team. Indeed, since Meret made his league debut for Napoli in December 2018, his longest run of consecutive league appearances has been four, with the club’s coaches continuously chopping and changing between their custodians.

The lack of a settled goalkeeper is clearly impacting their respective performances. Last season, Meret recorded the lowest goals prevented rate (0.84) of any Serie A keeper to feature in at least 50% of all on-field minutes, with the second-lowest save percentage within the same group of players (66.3%). More information on how a goalkeeper’s goals prevented output is measured can be read here.

Ospina has also failed to record a positive goals prevented rate for two consecutive seasons (-3.37 in 2018/19 and -1.5 in 2019/20), meaning he has conceded more goals than we would expect from an average Serie A keeper, based on the quality of shots he faced.

When the new season gets underway, Napoli should give serious consideration to guaranteeing one of their keepers an extended run in the team, as stability between the posts could potentially benefit their defence as a whole.

Stats Perform Verdict: Revolution Required

Replacing Callejón and Supporting Mertens

Napoli were given a boost in May with the news that Dries Mertens had agreed an extension to his contract, ending speculation of a move to the Premier League.

During 2019/20, Mertens became the club’s all-time record scorer, eclipsing the goals totals of Marek Hamsik (121) and Diego Maradona (115). He currently has 125 for Napoli.

As well as scoring goals, the Belgian’s all-round play is vital to his side. Since moving to Serie A in 2013, only Ciro Immobile (162) and Gonzalo Higuaín (155) have been involved in more goals in the Italian top-flight.

However, it is also important to recognise that Mertens will be turning 34 during the new campaign and during the last two seasons, his on-field league appearance percentage has steadily dropped. Having appeared in 88% of all available minutes in 2017/18, his number went down to 66% in 2018/19 and then to 49% last season. Indeed in 31 appearances, he only played the full 90 on eight occasions.

Another of Napoli’s creative players, José Callejón, also left the club this summer. During the past two seasons, Mertens, Callejón and Lorenzo Insigne have been Napoli’s top three chance creators, so the club have a potential creative void to fill.

One option would be to build around Fabián Ruiz in central midfield. The 24-year-old Spaniard contributed six assists last season and ranked fourth in Napoli’s squad for xA (4.75), which was comfortably the highest single season output of his career to date.

Ruiz’s influence in Napoli’s play is reflected in his passing numbers. In a team which averaged the most passes per sequence in the league (4.8), he completed 2,114 passes in Serie A last season. No other player exceeded 2,000. He also completed the most successful passes in the opposition half in the competition, again demonstrating his influence in more advanced areas of the pitch.

Another creative option is Hirving Lozano, who since the arrival of Gasttuso in December has been utilised almost exclusively as a substitute.  The Mexican was used mainly as a centre forward during his first season in Italy, however during his two seasons with PSV he was utilised on the right wing, where he provided 16 assists across the two campaigns to go with 34 league goals.

A natural right footer, he could be an obvious replacement for Callejón, as he looks to justify some of his reported €42 million fee.

Stats Perform Verdict: Evolution Required

Review other pieces in this series:
Arsenal
Manchester United
Manchester City
Chelsea
Tottenham Hotspur
Leicester City
Leeds United
West Brom
Fulham
Barcelona
Real Sociedad
Valencia


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