After witnessing the footage of their new, and in-form, star striker tearing his ACL whilst on international duty with his country, you would have to forgive many Napoli fans for thinking that their hopes, of finally usurping Juventus, were over.
For five years, Juve have masterfully dominated Serie A, with last year’s nine-point gap between Juventus and Napoli being the closest that any side has come to the champions since 2013. Not even Gonzalo Higuaín, in the form of his life, could knock the Bianconeri off of their perch, and with the Argentinian making an unprecedented move from Naples to the champions in the summer, the outlook seemed bleak for Serie A’s chasing pack.
With their pockets considerably heavier, Napoli went on the hunt for a striker to fill Higuaín’s rather big boots. With the €90m Napoli received for the sale of Higuaín, the Partenopei invested €35m of it in Arkadiusz Milik. Although having an impressive season at Ajax, after a somewhat disappointing showing at the European Championships with Poland, eyebrows were raised as to whether Milik could be the man to possibly replace Higuaín’s record-breaking 38 goal haul from the season before. However, despite his doubters, Milik started the season on the front foot with seven goals in nine appearances in Serie A and the Champions League.
With his injury sidelining him until deep into 2017, Napoli will need reserve striker Manolo Gabbiadini to step up now more than ever if they stand any chance of winning silverware this season.
Gabbiadini joined Napoli with much fanfare for a relatively low fee back in 2013, but has since failed to nail down a regular first team place. With Higuaín ahead of him in the pecking order and Maurizio Sarri being notoriously against rotating his team, it’s not hard to feel sorry for Gabbiadini.
Last season Gabbiadini played just 909 minutes in all competitions, bagging nine goals in the process. That’s one goal every 101 minutes. For a player lacking consistency in playing opportunities, that’s a reasonably impressive return. This season however, Gabbiadini has just one goal in 227 minutes. With three of his six appearances coming from the bench, chances have been few and far between, but at the highest level you expect players to take even the slimmest of openings.
Now that Milik is out of the picture for the foreseeable future, Gabbiadini will almost undoubtedly be drafted in as Napoli’s starting striker, and has a tangible chance to stake a claim for the position upon his Polish counterpart’s return.
Whether Napoli will stick or twist with their formation remains to be seen, however. Sarri favours a 4-3-3, with the wingers delivering balls into a target man, whilst also often cutting in to shoot themselves. Napoli’s success stems from an unpredictable style, which opposition often fail to anticipate. As a result of this, Napoli tend to create plenty of chances for their sole striker, meaning that Gabbiadini shouldn’t find opportunities hard to come by.
Alternatively, we could see Napoli shift to a formation which incorporates two forwards up front. Sarri’s side has an abundance of talented wingers and attacking midfielders, which, in the right set-up, could be used as forwards if necessary. The likes of Lorenzo Insigne, José Callejón and Dries Mertens are best utilised out wide or in behind the striker, but could feasibly fit into a conventional little-and-large striking partnership alongside Gabbiadini.
So far this season, Mertens has scored four goals, but hasn’t managed an assist in eight games, whilst Callejón has been able to bag five goals and two assists in nine matches. In contrast to this, Insigne hasn’t scored a goal yet, but has assisted three times. With competition in the attacking areas fierce, Sarri has been forced to bench one of Mertens and Insigne each game, whilst starting Callejón in every game so far.
Regardless of how the next three months pan out, it’s likely that Napoli will bring in a striker in January to either back up, or play ahead of, Gabbiadini, thus putting the ball firmly in the 24 year-old’s court. If Gabbiadini can hit the ground running and use this opportunity as a springboard to further first team involvement, then Napoli have nothing to worry about. However, if he fails to have the desired impact, he’s likely to be replaced come January and out the door by the summer. After all, what need is there for a striker who’s unable take a chance like this?