The first thing to do is some work on improving Napoli’s coaching team. We have a very good goalkeeping trainer in Alessandro Nista, but Valerio Fiori brings the side down and I agree mutual release terms with him. He’s replaced with Des McAleenan, an Irishman who currently works with the Colombian national team. To make up the shortfall of coaches, I sign Mainz 05’s Benjamin Hoffmann because of his attacking prowess, Ivan Carminati from Zenit (fitness and tactical) and Ricky Sbragia (defending) on a free. There’s still no training area where we are Serie A’s best, but we are now near the top at least. It irritates me that Juve have replaced a number of their coaches, leaving several very good personnel available for gratis, yet because of the rivalry between the clubs they have no interest of working in the San Paolo.
Elsewhere, French physio Jean-Georges Cellier replaces Vincenzo Longobardi, and we steadily fill out the open positions with recommended personnel.
Fernando Llorente is the first player to leave on my watch. The former Tottenham second stringer is sitting here on fat wages and little chance of playing, so a deal is quickly worked out for him to play his twilight years at Wolverhampton. £425k sounds like a negligible fee, but the guy’s 35 and removing him from the club’s groaning salary bill is a major plus. Arkadiusz Milik is next. Unwilling to sign a new contract and not in my good books because I’m not into poachers, he agrees an £8.5 million deal to join Spurs. The board aren’t happy with this. His value jumps due to the fact he’s agreed a five year contract, but we weren’t ever going to get much more than ten million for him and again, wiping his wages from the budget matters.
Their departures open the possibility that I can make a couple of signings. A back-up player for the right wing is the one significant gap within the squad. Right-back Kevin Malcuit can play there, but surely we can do better than that. Given that I really want to boost the team’s Italian presence it boils down to two choices – Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi, or Riccardo Orsolini from Bologna. I go for the latter. He’s younger, at 23, and I had a good time with him in an FM 2020 save. He joins for £18.5 million.
I identify a good alternative centre-back as a priority. In one of our pre-season matches we lose 3-2 to Sampdoria, featuring a second-half collapse, and a defining factor has to be replacing Manolas and Koulibaly with Maksimovic and Rrahmani. Not good enough, indeed a little bit scary. Armando Izzo is the player I want. Currently with Torino, he’s a cut above our existing choices and as a former Neapolitan he will add to the slim ranks of ‘trained at the club’ homegrown players. It’s a relatively cheap deal. £11 million is enough, not bad for a 28 year old ball playing defender who has three Italian caps to his name.
Izzo’s arrival means there is no longer any need to retain Amir Rrahmani, a Kosovan-Albanian who looks to me like the definition of bang average. He leaves for Lyon in an £8.25 million deal. Kevin Malcuit is the next to go. The Blues are well stocked for right-sided full-backs so the Frenchman is surplus to requirements. Ajax produce the £7 million needed to end our association with him.
With some money left in the bank I look next at left-back. Mario Rui and Faouzi Ghoulam are the existing choices. Neither inspire awe and both players are earning fat wads of cash that far outstrip their abilities. Algerian Ghoulam, taking home £78,000 per week as a fringe player, is the identified one to lose. At the time of writing, just ahead of the season opener, he’s agreeing terms with Ajax and should be leaving shortly. It won’t produce a windfall, £3.3 million with several clauses thrown in, but as always I need to think about how much we are lavishing on wages.
The player I want to bring in is Alex Grimaldo. There are no Italians who (i) are good enough (ii) are affordable. Luca Pellegrini is probably the best of the choices out there, a young Juventus player who’s out on loan, and at this stage I have no idea whether the trade of players between us is an anathema, in the way that Manchester United and Liverpool refuse to deal with each other. So Grimaldo then, a former Barcelona youth player whose reputation at Benfica has steadily grown. 24 years old and installed as the first choice left-back, Grimaldo costs us £23.5 million and will hopefully seal his place in the side for some years to come.
If no further transfer action takes places then I’ll be happy enough. Gaps have been identified and filled, and with the new recruits installed we’re looking in a pretty healthy place, I feel. Here in a simple table format is how the squad stacks up:
In a neutral Milanese stadium picked as our base for pre-season we dispatch Chievo Verona 3-0. The game features a fantastic incisive strike from Victor Osimhen, who looks confident and deadly when presented with chances, a really promising acquisition. The only downside of this one is a hamstring strain incurred by Insigne that will remove him for much of the run of friendlies. This game is followed by the Sampdoria debacle. We go 2-0 up and everything’s looking good, only for a combination of clumsiness and defensive mix-ups to gift three easy goals to the opposition. I think the players are a bit unsettled over how angry losing this one makes me. It shouldn’t be happening. Sure it’s a friendly, but the collapse is such a disconcerting thing to witness. We really ought to be keeping the limited Genoese opposition at bay.
At the end of August, we produce a 1-0 victory over VFL Wolfsburg. This is more like it. Osimhen puts us ahead on the cusp of half-time and I use the second period to flex our muscles at the back. The Germans can’t find a way through so I am much more sanguine by the final whistle. We dominate in terms of shots, xG and possession, and the home team predictably air their frustrations by boosting the fouls count.
Another humbling of sorts follow when some sadist includes a visit to Anfield as part of our schedule. Thankfully, there’s little chance that we will face Liverpool again this season. They’re better than us, even as both sides are picking at their rumps with the international break taking place. Unless the opposition foul up their Champions League group and end up dropping into the Europa League this should be our only meeting, and I am tempted to slot them in again for a friendly next summer when hopefully we are an improved team. They beat us 1-0, on paper not a terrible result but there are moments when we are doing all we can to stem the red tide. Scary stuff.
A week before Serie A hostilities begin, we host Benfica, complete with soon-to-be-Blue Grimaldo slotted in at left-back for them. I see the Portuguese giants as roughly at the same level as we are, and it’s vastly encouraging to produce a 2-0 victory. The opposition are reduced to scraps while Politano and Bakayoko produce the goods. A fine performance, with Lozano taking the match ball for being an ever-dangerous threat on our left wing. Orsolini spends the second half on our right and looks really good, comfortable in Napoli blue and scoring, only for the goal to be ruled out for a dubious offside i.e. he was definitely off.
The season will open with the visit of AC Milan, a tough start against a side I have a lot of affection for and who of course can call on the godlike presence of Zlatan. How we perform against them will say a lot about our prospects for the campaign, so I’m hopeful for a good showing.