After Roma's embarrassing 6-1 loss to Bodø/Glimt in last night's Europa Conference League fixture, the quick turnaround ahead of Sunday's Derby del Sole against Napoli can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. In the wake of such a disappointing defeat, rather than licking their wounds, throwing their feet back in the fire might actually be the best cure for Roma, and a derby against undefeated Napoli certainly rises to that standard. However, José Mourinho might actually need more time to fix the litany of errors from last night's embarrassing display in Norway.
Kirsten Schlewitz, who wears many hats across the soccer media landscape, doesn't care one bit about Roma's current mental state. As part of the Far From Vesuvius crew and a noted fan of Marek Hamsik (and his hair), Kirsten is a dyed-in-the-wool Napoli fan and even contributed to/managed our former Napoli site, The Siren Song, for a time. She's also a managing editor at 7500 to Holte, our Aston Villa site, and the co-founder and editor of Unusual Efforts, a fantastic site that has even devoted column space on the Rise & Fall of José Mourinho, and one of my favorite pieces on why the Italian National Team matters so much to the descendants of Italian emigres.
As I said, Kirsten wears many hats but I know her primarily as a Napoli fan, so I couldn't wait to get her take on the Partenopei's perfect start to the season.
Roma fans are quite familiar with the peaks and valleys of the Luciano Spalletti experience, but how would you gauge his first few months at the helm? What’s fueled Napoli’s early season successes?
Kirsten Schlewitz: Listen, I know most Serie A fans are more familiar with Spalletti than I, because they’ve been following the league since they were infants, and he began coaching in 1994. He rarely leaves clubs without returning, as you know. The first season he was at Roma, 2005-2006, y’all went on an 11 match winning streak, but would’ve finished fifth if it weren’t for calciopoli. This makes me nervous. TBH, I never wanted Spalletti—I love the newer coaches with different attitudes to the game.
Thus far, I’ve (obviously) appreciated his approach, given the perfect record. He’s working with a squad that really isn’t his — only a few fringe players (sorry Juan Jesus fans) are ones he was part of bringing to Napoli—but he’s managed to bring out the best in this squad, having them playing cohesively and able to adapt to a player’s absence when necessary. His veteran presence in the locker room might be just what Napoli needs. The last time we were in this position, we had Maurizio Sarri at the helm, and he not only overworked his players, but also checked out at the end of the season. For now, we’re seeing much more than that from Spalletti, particularly in his use of Victor Osimhen. Oh, and Eljif Elmas . . . we had no idea he could play so well. No wonder we’re celebrating!
(But what, oh what, has he done with Mario Rui? This man has been the bane of my existence, and now he’s playing well? That’s sorcery, that is.)
Turning that around, have you noticed any potential weaknesses Spalletti needs to address to maintain the club’s current pace?
KS: I think the one thing everyone who watches calcio can agree on is that Lorenzo Insigne should stop taking penalties. It’s typically the captain who decides, but there are many other potential takers who could actually get the ball in the net. Lorenzo is behaving like Gonzalo Higuain, our Voldemort, and Spalletti needs to take him aside to make it known that a captain who delegates is one who is a true leader.
In addition, I think Spalletti — who is likely simply angling for a trophy — needs to back off from Europa League. We beat Legia Warsaw 3-0 with a lineup that was mostly filled with starters when we have y’all to play at the weekend. This is the same kind of nonsense both Sarri and Carlo Ancelotti did, and it just wears out our players. We’ve got a deeper bench than we’ve had in the past, but the same nerves are still there.
Spalletti is renowned for his ability to get production out of his strikers, so talk to us a bit about his work with Victor Osimhen. What makes him so special and what’s driving his breakout season in the making?
KS: Whoops, I mentioned Osimhen earlier, but I didn’t go into detail. Obviously, I’m not at trainings and not privy to what happens in the locker room, but I think that breaking free of Gennaro Gattuso to work with a more experienced coach has helped the Nigerian tremendously. We were all so excited when he arrived from Lille, but we were without him for about three months last season. He still scored ten goals, but many a time he seemed nervous.
Again, I’m just going off my own impressions here, but I think between having a veteran coach who knows how to train him to keep his composure up top, and having played with a little-changed squad from last season whom he now trusts will get the ball to him so he can finish, is making Osimhen a star for Napoli. (And because I now love Elmas, I’ll just say that between him and Insigne sending in lovely balls, that isn’t hurting Osimhen’s production.) So it’s not all a Spalletti—Osimhen relationship, but the way that the team is working together as well.
With only three goals conceded, Napoli’s defense has been suffocating, but it has to be about more than just Koulibaly. What, if anything, has changed about Napoli’s defensive approach this season, and which other defenders should Roma fans worry about on Sunday?
KS: I put down the extra-strong defense to those amazing Halloween kits. No, just kidding, but it does seem like having a little fun out there helps this team, since a strong bond among the players is what makes a tight squad—and especially a tight defense. Kalidou Kouliably is our rock, no doubt, but in general, it seems that the consistency from season to season is helping this defense. If you look at last week’s win over Torino compared to Napoli’s loss to Milan in Round 8 last season, the squad is quite similar.
With the exception of Mario Rui, who I still think has a tendency to be overconfident, as well as to make unnecessary challenges, I’m not sure who of the defense Roma shouldn’t be worried about. Maybe Kostas Manolas, because if he plays, some Roma players will still know how to get around him? I’m more confident in Amir Rrahmani myself. And, of course, we’ve got a better defensive midfielder in André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, something we’ve been looking for since Allan left, and that’s not going to help Roma out much either.
Speaking of worrying, when you look at Roma’s roster and their tactical approach, are there any particular players or trends that should concern Napoli on Sunday?
KS: I gotta say that after your Europa Conference League match, Roma don’t seem all that frightening. But of course, that’s what everyone who doesn’t pay attention to calcio is going to think, and that’s why I urge them to place their bets on Roma, because they’ll be an underdog who is determined not only to avenge themselves from their midweek embarrassment, but to take down Napoli, a team with whom they have a historic rivalry (at least, the ultras do). Plus, there’s no way Mou is content with sitting fourth after that beating. So I guess I’d be afraid of this team overall, simply because of the circumstances. I fear Spalletti will also feel a bit overconfident heading into this match, which gives y’all another advantage. Lorenzo Pellegrini is the obvious answer. I always fear Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
As for a system, though, the only thing that’s stood out to me through highlights as well as watching the derby and Juventus matches is that this is a giallorossi team that looks like it’s out for blood. I mean, it’s always that way with those two teams, but y’all have seen a ridiculous number of fouls and cards across all matches, and you’re not inclined to be friendly to the club that leads the league. So more than anything, I’m afraid of seeing my Napoli team get bruised or worse.
Finally, give us a prediction for this weekend.
KS: 1-0 Roma because this amazing streak has to end somewhere, and why not have it end at the same place it did the year we thought Sarri was going to bring us the Scudetto?
Big thanks to Kirsten for her time and insight. You can follow her on Twitter and read her work on 7500 to Holte, Unusual Efforts, and Far From Vesuvius.