On a wall outside the Cimitero del Pianto, the graveyard in West Naples, where the great Neapolitan comedian Toto is buried, there is a famous legend written in the Neapolitan dialect. Perhaps with the funny man in mind, fans daubed a simple and direct message to the cemetery’s inhabitants after Diego Maradona led Napoli into the European Cup for first time in 1987. It reads: Boys you don’t know what you are missing.
Over two and half decades later fans may want to write a similar memo if their latest Argentine hero, Gonzalo Higuain, can lead them just that bit further into Europe. But it won’t be easy in their final do or die Champions League group game this Wednesday.
The hosts need to win by three clear goals, but, thankfully, Pipita has re-found his shooting boots as has Goran Pandev. After they buried Lazio with a deadly triple and an assist each in the 4-2 win, last Saturday the pair put the Death Grip on Udinese with two goals and an assist. However, it was to no avail as they were let down by their midfield, defence and boss, who by keeping four forwards on the pitch when the midfield was being overrun, committed suicide.
This lack of direction from the bench and in midfield seems to have coincided with Marek Hamsik’s form falling away. In Coach Rafa Benitez’s 4-2-3-1, the central attacking midfielder really needs to be dominant. He needs to be directing the flow of the game, linking the various departments but the Slovak is simply not doing that. Not that he need shoulder all the blame as the midfield as a whole needs to be more responsive, faster and more compact.
The defeats by Borussia Dortmund, Parma and Juve, along with the Udinese draw, have shown that the 4-2-3-1 isn’t working as well as it could, should or would be. Consequently the wingers find themselves with extra pressure which also puts additional demands on the two central midfielders, who find that they cannot take up the slack.
Now, especially in the light of his injury, the structural problems and the lack of success of anyone in Marekiaro’s role, Benitez needs to reinvent the midfield and introduce a second system. He showed he can adapt when he introduced a 4-4-2 in the win over Lazio, but even then the defence was vulnerable.In the last four League games Napoli have conceded nine goals plus the five against Marseille and Borussia.
Perhaps then with a 4-3-3, where the attacking central midfielder is taken out of the equation, the extra man can offer more defensive protection for the back four. Despite his obvious talent Blerim Dzemaili struggles as one of the ‘double sixes’ in a 4-2-3-1. Why not play him, Valon Behrami and Gokhan Inler side by side in the middle, fronted by three of Lorenzo Insigne/Pandev, Higuain and Jose Callejon/Dries Mertens?
Or perhaps drop Dzemaili or Behrami altogether and slot defender Raul Albiol into the midfield, he has played that role before with Real Madrid and would add an extra protective pillar. This would also allow the experience of Paolo Cannavaro to be used in defence, after all last season he and Miguel Britos were rock solid together.
Certainly using the 4-3-3 every game would not be practical, but what it will do against Arsenal is offer an alternative and could just surprise them. And certainly switching to it would bring in an extra midfielder and give the wingers more of a chance to do less defensive work. This would hopefully allow them to do what they should be doing – creating chances for Higuain. Certainly 26 seasons after that first European adventure, Napoli fans do not want their team to play in the graveyard shift of the Europa League.