Leonardo Pavoletti’s €18 million move to Napoli was met by some significant skepticism as to what exactly the Livornese striker can bring to the Partenopei.
With such a noteworthy investment, it is unlikely for Pavoletti to simply feature as Arek Milik’s substitute, once the Pole returns from injury. This begs the question of how a player of Pavoletti’s kind can fit into Maurizio Sarri’s schemes, which is what we’ll attempt to answer today.
First step: Identifying Pavoletti
In order to undertake this task, and have a better chance of understanding what his contribution to Napoli will be, we must first appreciate what Pavoloso’s characteristics are:
Leonardo is a player of a kind that has almost gone extinct in modern football: the classic Italian centravanti. Quite different from the modern concept of centre-forward, the centravanti is stereotypically a physical, cool-headed player, whose only concerns are that of scoring goals and wrestling for any ball that comes his way. In broad terms, this is what Pavoletti is – but let us further explore his specific strengths and weaknesses.
Although Pavoletti’s physique has often represented a problem for him, it is paradoxically the striker’s biggest asset. Standing high at 186cm, Pavoletti’s physical structure is a fragile one, which has made him historically prone to injuries. All the same, his outstanding strength, combined with his ability to exploit it, is what has made him such a valuable player.
Able to maximize the utility of his physical potency, Pavoletti has learnt to move extremely cleverly off-the-ball. In particular, Pavo avoids the tasks which don’t suit his characteristics: he maintains his position, is wary of playing on the wings and always works to create gaps between the opposition’s defense and midfield. In addition, he sensibly conserves his energies, in order to offer his best services where he is most needed, in the box. Finally, his physical strength is of paramount importance when he has to shield the ball from defenders. In lack of on-the-ground options, his Genoa teammates often relied on Pavoletti’s physicality by supplying him with long through balls. This was evident last season, with Pavoletti winning the most aerial challenges in the Serie A (10 per 90 minutes).
Pavoletti’s other forte is his cynicism when facing a goal-scoring opportunity. Conscious of his lack of movement-swiftness that distinguishes him from the typical poachers (eg. Bacca, Immobile), Pavoletti is efficient in capitalising the most marginal of chances. When presented with a cross, however weak or imprecise it might be, Pavoletti charges the ball, and the defenders, with outstanding commitment. Last season, in 13 (out of 14) of his goals, Pavoletti took no touches before shooting for goal. This is indicative of Pavoletti’s no-nonsense pragmatism: when presented with an opportunity, his first concern is to shoot for goal.
Thus, when confronting a cross or a long-ball, Pavoletti does his utmost best. Instead, his technical and on-the-ball limits are palpable. Often, when attempting a dribbling or complicated passes, Pavo fails miserably. His technical limits also add to Pavoletti’s above-mentioned lack of swiftness, representing a further problematic. Needless to say, when Pavoletti distances himself from his comfort zone (the six-yard box), his heavy touch and slowness become even more evident, which is why he is seldom leaves the box.
Nonetheless, Pavoletti has learnt to compensate these flaws. An example of this is his third goal against Sampdoria in last year’s derby della Lanterna: an awful first touch, subsequently balanced by Leonardo’s aggressiveness and physicality.
Step 2: How can Pavogol fit into Napoli
By now, the keenest Serie A readers will have realised the Pavoletti-Napoli oxymoron: a static, long-ball type of player, signing for the team that least uses long balls in the whole Serie A.
Napoli’s ball distribution is almost always on the ground and, in addition to this, they are the 12th team in the league with regards to crosses made. Naturally, it is difficult to visualise how Pavoletti could successfully interpret any role in such a team.
At the same time, Napoli’s style of play might have developed due to the absence in the team of a player like Pavoletti. Neither Mertens, as a falso-nueve, nor Arek Milik, in his few games for the club, not to mention Gabbiadini, have provided the reference point that Leonardo was for Genoa. This means that Pavo’s arrival could potentially offer an alternative to Sarri’s current tactics, extracting the best out of superb crossers such as Insigne or Mertens. Potentially, Napoli’s assist-men in combination with Pavoletti could provide the Azzurri with a goal-scoring machine. However, Napoli already dispose of the Serie A’s best attack (42 goals scored) – hence, is a change advisable? Probably not, at least not on a total level.
Inevitably, it will be challenging for Pavo to fit in with Napoli’s technical masters, with whom he shares little or no footballing attributes, especially with regards to playing the ball on the ground. This will unavoidably present the striker with a limit, which will have to be met by a necessary adaptation phase.
Logically, and with knowledge of how Pavoletti has played in the past, one must conclude that Leonardo will struggle to fit into Napoli’s style of play. With his extremely niche set of skills, however outstanding they might be, it will also be problematic for the ex-Genoa man to adapt. Ultimately, the success of Pavo’s career with Napoli very much depends on Sarri’s willingness to reverse the process of adaptation, adjusting the team to Pavoletti’s necessities, as opposed to the other way round.