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Roma Should Still Outshine a Steadier Napoli Side This Season

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Roma's neighbors to the south ditched Rafa Benitez and added a few minor parts on defense, but does that make them a title contender?

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While the Milan sides are nearing the end of the recovery stages and Lazio appears primed to challenge Roma for Italy's best Non-Juventus side, the next club up in our Know Your Enemy series falls somewhere in between those two points; not needing a full-on makeover, yet not really improved enough to put the fear of god in you. We're talking, of course, about our neighbors to the south, Napoli.

Napoli

Last Season: 5th place, 63 points, +16 goal differential

Manager: Maurizio Sarri

Key Additions: Vlad Chiriches, Pepe Reia, Mirko Valdifori, Duvan Zapata

Key Departures: Gokhan Inler, Walter Gargano

Synopsis

While Napoli picked up a few nice pieces during the summer, they remain largely unchanged since we last saw them in May. The Partenopei are still led by Gonzalo Higuain, Marek Hamsik, Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne and (for now) Dries Mertens, so their offense should remain as lethal as ever.

Quite frankly, given all that talent, there wasn't much Napoli needed to do beyond bolstering their defense (which they didn't really do, if we're being honest), but the biggest change is on the sidelines, where former Empoli man Maurizio Sarri takes over for the not so dearly departed Rafa Benitez. Given that change at the top, the pace with which the manager and players adjust to one another will dictate how much success Napoli has this year, particularly in the early goings.

Style of Play

In order to surmise Sarri's style of play, we'll turn to our Napoli site for guidance:

Sarri favors a 4-3-1-2 formation, somewhat similar to the old narrow diamond employed by AC Milan during their heyday in the aughts, but with the deepest midfielder pulled up closer to the middle two. It's slightly unconventional in a world of modern football that relies so heavily on pace and width, but when it's set up right it works, in part because of that unconventional nature.

A closer and more modern comparison in terms of its structure would be the formation used by Max Allegri's Juventus side at times this past season. It's well-balanced, stays structured, and, when the players are comfortable in their roles, lets the players cover for each other easily when one is out of position or makes a mistake.

Source: The Siren's Song

In other words, Napoli's plan of attack is to not fuck up as often as they did under Benitez. The man in the middle of this supposed sea change is Hamsik, for his is the role most changed under Sarri. Rather than holding up play and making quick layoff passes, Hamsik will sit deeper, receiving the ball from defense and dictating how and where Napoli's offense moves. Essentially, Sarri is undertaking the drastic notion of giving your best player the ball more often.

In terms of basic formation, Sarri prefers the 4-3-1-2, a setup that enabled newly promoted Empoli to survive life in the top flight, allowing the 11th fewest goals in the league. With an unspeakably better cast in Napoli, one would expect Sarri's side to be one of Italy's most balanced squads.

Biggest Threat

It's Higuain, no question. Since arriving from Real Madrid in 2013, Higuain amassed 35 goals and 14 assists in league play. He is, without a doubt, the league's most complete forward and a force to be reckoned with each and every week. Though Hamsik returning to a more a natural role might see a return to his pre-Rafa days when he scored 43 and contributed 34 assists across four league seasons prior to Benitez's arrival.

Biggest Question Mark

The defense. Benitez or not, Napoli's defense was their Achilles heel last season, as their 54 goals allowed was actually worse than Sarri's newly promoted Empoli side. While Sarri's more patient approach should see that number decrease a bit, they simply don't have any standouts on defense, nor did they recruit any this summer, though they certain put up a good fight to acquire Nikola Maksimovic from Torino.

Scudetto Threat Factor: 6/10

The amount of talent on offense alone will make them a factor in the race, but their defense is either too inexperienced or simply not good enough to contend with the likes of Edin Dzeko, Mauro Icardi, Paulo Dybala or any other striker on Italy's top teams.

Roma Threat Factor: 7/10

Unfortunately for Roma, some of Napoli's top guns have impressive track records against the Giallorossi. Higuain has netted twice in six league matches against Roma, while Hamsik scores in about one of every three matches against Roma, but the real thorn in Roma's side is Jose Callejon--the Spaniard has scored three goals in six matches. All these factors, plus Roma's intrinsic deficiencies, makes Napoli a threat at unseating the Giallorossi.

With the sheer amount of attacking talent between these two sides, don't be surprised if they top ten goals in their two league matches, and if Sarri can steady the ship, don't expect the gap between these two to be that large.