Are Cracks Beginning to Form in Napoli’s Midfield Wall?

Down a goal to Genoa and what would be nine points behind league leading Juventus if the current score were to hold, Carlo Ancelotti stares across the pitch with an intense and concerned look as his players attempt to equalize and overcome both the Genoa defense and the torrential rain that has water logged the field. As a player, Ancelotti was not only composed in possession as a midfielder, but a cerebral play maker with an eye for goal. While not the most physically gifted, he succeeded and excelled through tenacity and technical ability. Having started his career closer to the front line with Parma, he would learn and adapt to a more central and even defensive role as his knees and father time forced him to redefine and adapt. Later as a manager, Ancelotti would pass on his knowledge of the position and mentor the midfield wonder that became Andrea Pirlo.

Now as he finds himself drenched from the heavy rains falling over Genoa he watches an aging Marek Hamšík struggle to kick the ball further than a few yards across the lake that has formed on the field of the Stadio Luigi Ferrais. Although his team is down a goal and there is concern, Ancelotti has confidence knowing that his side has the most complete midfield in Serie A and arguably one of the best in Europe. They have accomplished more than most pundits had given them credit for by dominating their opponent’s midfield with players like Allan, who’s tenacious ball stealing has earned him hero status among the Napoli faithful. Newly acquired Fabián Ruiz who is earning praise for his ability to maintain possession and passing efficiency has now started showing off his scoring prowess as he buries a ball that was forced to a stop, at the Genoa defense’s dismay, into the back of the net to level the match 1-1.

Ancelotti’s new 4-4-2 formation look has seemingly increased the number of midfield positions while also adding numbers to the player pool for those positions. With the flanks now serving as attacking midfield roles, players who used to be considered offensive wingers such as José Callejón and Simone Verdi are now in essence attacking midfielders along the likes of Piotr Zieliński and Fabián Ruiz. Essentially that leaves two traditional midfield slots available and with Allan penciled in with permanent marker, the reality is, a number of players such as Marek Hamšík, Amadou Diawara, Marko Rog and even Fabián are forced to compete for the left central midfield slot. Zieliński who has been struggling and would much prefer to occupy that left central position has been forced to an outside attacking midfielder role which he has seemingly lost due to the superior play of Fabián.

All of this competition for a single position has led to a few players speaking out and expressing their dissatisfaction with playing time and squad role. Zieliński is currently renegotiating his contract with the club but they are disagreeing on a buyout amount. Napoli are wanting to set their fee high so as to deter losing their highly regarded player but Zieliński and his agent are pushing for a lower number. Perhaps this is due to being forced on the left flank where he isn’t as comfortable. Certainly the contract negotiations could be having an effect on the player’s performance as of late and while Zieliński is saying all the right things in the media expressing his desire to remain at Napoli, you have to wonder if he wouldn’t mind a chance to play at a position he enjoys at another club instead.

Hamšík is yet another player that Ancelotti has attempted to download his mental hard drive into as he mentors the change from attacking midfielder to deep lying play maker. The regista role that Ancelotti himself adapted to at Milan and perfected in Pirlo. It has taken a few games but Hamšík has adapted well enough to the role, but his age is most assuredly getting the better of him. Over the summer transfer window, Hamšík had attempted to offer his services to a Chinese club where he thought he could extend his career and earn a higher wage than staying in Europe. Ancelotti convinced Hamšík to stay and continue to captain the Napoli squad. Many thought it would have been best to let Napoli’s all time leading goal scorer and now, with this match against the Rossoblu, tallying the most matches in a Napoli shirt, stride into the sunset and allow the young and highly regarded Amadou Diawara a more than deserved opportunity. While Hamšík has been the starting player for most of the season, his agent has been quite vocal over the last month, as he feels his client should be starting even more games.

While it certainly seemed Diawara was prepared to take over for Hamšík in the heart of Napoli’s lineup over the summer, and even with Hamšík continuing as the starter, certainly a heavily rotated Napoli squad that has been Ancelotti’s trademark at the club thus far would have provided enough minutes to go around, but Diawara is now coming out and criticizing Ancelotti for not giving him more playing time. Diawara argues that he is seeing less minutes of match time than he did a year ago under Ancelotti’s predecessor Sarri, who rarely rotated the squad if at all. He has a point however having tallied a total of 1,279′ in all competitions last year, 370′ of those minutes came in Champions League. So far this year Diawara has accrued 345′ with none of those in Champions League. With rumors of Tottenham interested in acquiring the services of the disgruntled 21 year old Guinean, Napoli are in danger of seeing their most formidable part of the pitch crumble away.

With all of the displeasure being expressed, it is no wonder there are rumors surfacing of Napoli’s interest in young midfielders such as Nicolò Barella of Cagliari and Brescia’s deep lying play maker Sandro Tonali. While there may be turnover in Napoli’s squad in the days to come as players position themselves for what they feel is best for their careers, they will weather the storm knowing that as long as Carlo Ancelotti is manager, there will always be a great midfield mind with which to assemble a new wall that opponents must navigate past just as they weathered both Genoa and the rain by forcing an own goal and completing a 2-1 victory. With players like Allan and Fabián as cornerstones, Napoli are set for a long period of frustrating their opponents by dominating the pitch with a stranglehold on the midfield.

By Eric Passariello

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