The start of Napoli’s season was all about how they would cope without Gonzalo Higuain. Those questions were quickly answered by the blistering start of Arkadiusz Milik. Since his injury however, the burden of goalscoring has fallen on Manolo Gabbiadini and it’s simply not been the same for the Partenopei.
Tuesday’s Champions League match against Besiktas was just another proof of this. Performance-wise, Napoli did well. When it came to finishing however, the Naples outfit lacked the incisiveness they enjoyed with Higuain up top last season and Milik this year. Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli is a well-oiled machine, but one which operates with very specific parts. As a result, the offensive mechanism suffers when one gear is swapped out for another.
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On face value, Milik is a different striker compared to Higuain. Last season, Higuain was tasked to do more work with his back to goal, involve himself more in the build-up and serve as the offensive fulcrum. It’s not something Higuain did much of before, as he was the type of striker who played a lot more vertical and constantly looked to run in behind. Under Sarri, he mixed it up a lot more.
Milik naturally does what Sarri looks for in his striker, and so it’s unsurprising that he’s enjoyed such a good start to the season. In nine matches for the Azzurri, the Pole has scored seven goals, including three in the Champions League. By comparison, Gabbiadini has netted just twice from 11 appearances in all competitions.
The struggles of Gabbiadini are certainly tactical. His style of play is like that of the ‘old’ Higuain. He enjoys versatility, running in behind, but seldom involves himself in the build-up play. That last part is very problematic in Sarri’s team. Napoli’s strength lies in the potency of their combination down the left wing. The role of the centre-forward is thus to be a reference point, something Gabbiadini failed to do against Besiktas, which left Lorenzo Insigne isolated and Faouzi Ghoulam making forward runs for naught.
Bigger than the tactical problem of having Gabbiadini up top however, is the issue created by Sarri himself. Without making the ex-Sampdoria forward out to be the best striker in the world, he’s seldom been given a chance in Naples. As soon as Higuain was sold, Napoli President Aurelio de Laurentiis already had his eyes on bringing in a big-name replacement, with talks of Mauro Icardi before Milik was eventually signed.
From the start then, it sent a message to Gabbiadini that the club had little faith in him. The Italian’s struggles thus become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, constantly stepping onto the field with a point to prove and a chip on his shoulder.
The problem isn’t simply that Napoli struggle without Milik though. The real issue is that Sarri has developed such a finely-tuned starting XI that he seldom rotates for fear of upsetting things. So the fact that Gabbiadini is not a like-for-like swap for Milik was always bound to be problematic, and it is likely to remain so until the Polish international returns from his injury.