There are only four clubs from Europe’s big five leagues playing in the Champions League who are unbeaten both domestically and in Europe this season. Three of them are legitimate super clubs: Manchester City, winners of four of the last five Premier Leagues, Paris Saint-Germain, also winners of four of the last five domestic titles and Real Madrid, European and LaLiga champions In title.
Fourth is Napoli, who have just three Coppa Italia trophies to show for in the past 30 years… but here they are. They are top of Serie A and perfect in their Champions League group (three wins from three games, the last being a 6-1 hammering away at Ajax), with 31 goals scored in 11 games in both competitions.
Here’s the amazing part: They’re doing this after a summer in which they slashed their payroll by 30% and made a profit of 13 million euros ($12.8 million) in the transfer window. A summer that saw them say goodbye to exactly the kind of players that conventional wisdom holds are the key to success in the sport. You know, the type ex-pros-turned-experts love to talk about: talented, experienced leaders who have a real connection to the club and the fan base.
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Lorenzo Insigne, the Napoli-born, raised and buttery striker who came through the youth ranks and had been in the squad for 10 years, was cleared to leave by free agency. Kalidou Koulibaly, the club’s spiritual leader, defensive stalwart and one of the world’s best at his job, joined Chelsea after eight seasons. Hugely popular Dries Mertens – the club’s all-time top scorer in Serie A – was also cleared to move on, joining Galatasaray, while elegant midfield playmaker Fabian Ruiz moved on. at PSG.
In all of the above cases, money was a factor. The front three were on the wrong side of 30 while Ruiz was 26, but he only had one year left on his contract (like Koulibaly) and the club felt they couldn’t afford to lock him in in a longer contract. And so, they took it on the chin.
When clubs do this you think ‘reset button’ and ‘season rebuild’. They finished third last year, after all, and it was hard to see them come back to the Champions League – especially with an often agitated sector of the fan base angry at chairman Aurelio De Laurentiis for effectively gutting their team in an effort to save money. And even more when, at the beginning of September, their most talented remaining player, Victor Osimhen, fell through injury (he has not yet returned to action).
Instead, their results so far have shown that they are masters of “reloading”.
For clubs outside of the top dozen — basically, the deep-pocketed one percenters like Real Madrid, PSG or Manchester City — reloading is pretty much the holy grail. It’s different from rebuilding because when you rebuild you accept that you won’t be as competitive in the short term because you’re going in a new direction, usually with a new manager and/or younger players.
Reloading, however, relies on you having to replace the guys you’ve lost without suffering in terms of results. Why? Because if your bottom line goes down, in many cases so does your income. And then you get stuck in a vicious cycle.
Reloading was also what Napoli’s opponents were hoping to do on Tuesday night. In the summer, Ajax lost Antony and Lisandro Martinez to Manchester United, Sebastian Haller to Borussia Dortmund, Ryan Gravenberch and Noussair Mazraoui to Bayern Munich, Perr Schuurs to Torino and Nicolas Tagliafico to Lyon (among the players who played in least 22 league matches). They have spent over €100m on substitutions to stay competitive, win the Dutch league and try to make inroads in Europe. (They are second in the Eredivisie, but after Tuesday’s result they face an uphill battle to reach the Champions League knockout stage, which would mean less revenue next season and less chance of hang on to their remaining prized players like Jurrien Timber and Mohamed Kudus.)
This is the reality facing Europe’s upper middle class and, to some extent, teams just outside the Big Six in England. In Napoli’s case, however, their approach has been extremely successful and they’ve managed just about every summer signing so far.
Part of the strategy was to move quickly and decisively for targets that weren’t quite off the radar, but were on the fringes, at other clubs and seemed to have limited downsides. At the back, they acquired Min-Jae Kim from Fenerbahce, a 26-year-old South Korea international who spent three seasons in China ahead of his campaign in Turkey last season. Mathias Olivera, a Uruguayan international, has arrived battle-hardened from La Liga Getafe fighters. Norway defender Leo Ostigard arrived from Brighton after doing very well on a six-month loan spell at Genoa and proving himself in Serie A.
In midfield, they took a calculated gamble by loaning Tanguy Ndombele to Tottenham. A one-time phenom, Ndombele has been fundamentally mediocre for the past two seasons (including while on loan at Lyon), but the logic is simple: if he pulls himself together, you’ve got a standout player. If he doesn’t, he’s not a projected starter anyway and you send him back to his parent club.
Striker Giovanni Simeone, best known to some for being Diego’s son and having a Champions League tattoo, was another low-risk loanee. He scored a career-high 17 goals last season for Verona, but the knock against him is that he is streaky and, at 27, not going to improve. Again, for a season, it’s a useful alternative to have. (Oh, and he’s already scored against Ajax and Liverpool in the Champions League.)
Then there’s Giacomo Raspadori, signed from Sassuolo on loan with an obligation to buy. (It’s basically an accounting trick: he’ll cost Napoli between €30m and €35m in transfer fees depending on performance.) Raspadori is a 22-year-old striker who is in the Italy squad but, can Maybe because Sassuolo was unglamorous, a few big clubs were beating their way to its doorstep. His age made him a risk worth taking.
Finally, they acquired perhaps the player who had the most impact on Serie A this season: Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.
The 21-year-old Georgian prodigy is a human highlight reel that has been on reconnaissance radars for the past three years. A combination of factors (including the war in Ukraine) allowed Napoli to sign him for a bargain price of €10m. He already has six goals, three assists and more #Kvaradona mentions you can shake a stick (which matters in this town).
– Schlewitz: How Napoli’s overhaul made them a better team
The remnants of last season are also performing at a high level. Whatever leadership vacuum has been left by the departures of Insigne, Koulibaly and Mertens, it is being filled by guys like Osimhen (before his injury), Piotr Zielinski and Giovanni Di Lorenzo. Goalkeeper Alex Meret, heavily criticized by some local media and fans for his lack of personality, showed he belonged.
And let’s not forget coach Luciano Spalletti. He may be an eccentric, but he’s captured the fan, city and team vibe well, and he’s bringing his young team to life full of energy, whereas last year he s is a bit busier with veterans. with a more patient approach.
There isn’t necessarily a larger plan to follow here. What works for them may not work for other clubs; maybe they have better decision-making staff, or maybe they just got lucky. But it’s remarkable that they’re in this position given how hard it is to bulk reload on the fly. And perhaps their experience can encourage other clubs to be bold and make the tough decisions themselves.