A traditional round-up of the squad as it stands entering the new season…
This boils down to a straight choice between Alex Meret ( 23 years old, 1 cap) and David Ospina ( 32, 106 caps). While the latter is considered to be our first choice, my temptation is to go with Meret as our default starter, as the onetime Arsenal man is steadily pushed towards the exit. In reality there’s little between them, Meret getting the nod because he’s homegrown and younger, and clearly the better longer term prospect.
For this season it’s good to have the luxury of two very good keepers from whom to choose. Nikita Contini ( 24, 0 caps) is a distant third choice, but he’s risen through the ranks. The goal as I see it is for Ospina to leave at the end of the year (when he’s entering the last year of his contract), while Meret and Contini form our starter and back-up unit.
Serbian centre-back Maksimovic can play here, but in reality there are two possible choices. The main man is probably Giovanni Di Lorenzo ( 27, 4 caps), a 2019 signing who has slowly developed to playing at Serie A standard following spells with Lucchese, Reggfina, Matera and Empoli. The coaches have nothing bad to say about him, a defensive wing-back who’s resolute, enjoys a big match and brings technical acumen to his role. Backing him up is Elseid Hysaj ( 26, 53 caps), now entering his sixth year as a Blue. A fine squad player who can operate in either full-back position and is as fit as they come. Hysaj is wanted by a string of teams. Valued at £5.75 million and in the last year of his contract, my aim is to tie him down to a new deal without offering him anything greater than his existing squad rotation status. Hopefully his love for the team (he’s an Inter supporter – ulp!) will tell.
This position now belongs to Alex Grimaldo ( 24, 0 caps), a complete wing-back who I hope will develop into our first choice for years to come. Skilful, technically adroit and almost impossible to be parted from the ball, the only potential black mark is that he is considered to be a high injury risk. Whether this is due to a heavy pre-season run for Benfica or a long-term issue remains to be seen. If it’s the latter then we may come to rely increasingly on Mario Rui ( 29, 10 caps), with his Musketeers moustache and a playing style that can appropriately be described as swashbuckling. Like a lower rent Guerreiro, he’s had a good pre-season and he’s very fast. How long he will remain with us is an issue that will be addressed before too long. Real San Sebastian want him, and if they offer a good amount then he’ll be playing on borrowed time.
Newly promoted to first team captain, Kalidou Koulibaly ( 29, 43 caps) is a star player and a rock at the back. Imposing, authoritative and brave, the coaches raise a concern that he doesn’t enjoy big matches, which hopefully won’t develop into a crisis as any team worth its salt would see in him one of the best defenders out there. His regular partner at the back will be Kostas Manolas ( 29, 44 caps), a seasoned international with physical numbers that are excellent. Kostas does everything we could realistically expect from a top ranking central defender, and he’s quick too. Barcelona are sniffing around, and they would need to offer a lot for a player valued at £23 million.
The main back-up is Armando Izzo ( 28, 3 caps), newly reintroduced to the San Paolo after leaving in 2011 and spending his time with Avellino, Genoa and Torino. Rated as an elite centre-back, and thought of as a smart player who displays good reading of the game, I’m really happy to be able to call on him. He’s probably the least flashy acquisition I have made in the summer, but I suspect he will be important. Somewhat further down the ranks, Nikola Maksimovic ( 28, 26 caps) can operate at right-back as well as in the middle. Physical and tall at 6’ 4”, there’s potentially a lot to like about this tough tackling, no nonsense Serb, however his contract lapses in 2021 and I’m torn about what to do with him. Most likely I’ll offer him a new deal, basically because I wouldn’t want to lose on a free someone I’d far prefer to get money for, but this will depend on the squad status that he requires. A regular starter he is not.
Two players can operate here; both are rated as regulars, which might present problems. Slightly ahead on the numbers is Tiemoue Bakayoko ( 26, 1 cap), who’s here on loan from Chelsea. At one point a criminally expensive signing for the Londoners, he played one season before going out on loan hell year after year, and we are his most recent stop. I quite like him, a strong and smart tackler who is interested in signing for us permanently. There’s no optional fee in his contact, and Chelsea are likely to ask for up to £28 million, which is probably about right for his level. Or, if it works out, we could just bring him in on loan again until his contract expires. Alternatively, we can throw our lot in with Diego Demme ( 28, 1 cap), a leader in the defensive midfield hole who plays with authority and will keep on working forever, much like the Duracell bunny. At 5’ 7” there’s something of the ‘Lucas Torreira’ about him, however his lack of presence in the air is contrasted with bravery and a consummate team playing ethic.
I’m still in two minds whether to add to this group of players, particularly with Inter’s Roberto Gagliardini on the transfer list. What’s staying my hand is a lack of remaining funds and questions over whether we really need him. This is a good unit, spearheaded by Piotr Zielkinski ( 26, 53 caps), an attacking playmaker who has been part of the set-up since 2016. He’s very good, especially in the pass and the killer ball, and there’s potentially an eye for goal here also. An absolute regular in the side since signing from Empoli, his normal partner should be Fabian ( 24, 6 caps). The perfect complement to Zielinski in his deep lying role, Fabian has scored eight goals in his two years with us and like the Pole has an excellent passing range. A string of suitors is forming an orderly queue for his services, with Manchester United and Barca heading the queue, so I think we will need to be successful if we want to keep him. He’s definitely among the jewels in Napoli’s crown.
Stanislav Lobotka ( 25, 24 caps) is another deep lying playmaker who, like Fabian, is entering his third year as a Blue. An experienced international and skilful on the ball, there’s yet potential for him to grow. I especially like his tendency to recycle the ball rather than try and score – he’s poor at finishing but great at passing, so it sounds as though Stan essentially plays to his strengths. Our young gun is Eljif Elmas ( 20, 20 caps), signed for £14.5 million from Fenerbahce back in 2019. Still growing as a player, he’s another great passer and technically highly capable. If we revert to a 4-2-3-1 formation then he is the obvious choice for the central attacking midfielder role. In the middle of the park, he’s best used as a Mezzala. His future prospects suggest that if he works hard and plays his cards right then Eljif may become world class.
Attacking Right Wingers
Our first choice is Matteo Politano ( 27, 5 caps), on loan from Inter with a £17.5 million transfer arranged for next summer. A winger from the Sassuolo production line who impressed on loan both with ourselves and Inter before the latter shelled out £18 million for him, Matteo failed to make an impression for Conte and has been shuffled back to the San Paolo. We hope to offer him permanence and security, this classy and technically gifted inverted winger who is a current member of the Azzurri. He can’t rest on his laurels however. Added to the ranks is Riccardo Orsolini ( 23, 1 cap), who is presently on the fringes of the national team. Back in 2016 Juventus signed him, then loaned him out for three years before finally selling him to Bologna. One year on, after a very fruitful year for the Greyhounds and he’s here, hitting the heights and expected to bear fruits via his pace, determination and ability to dribble past the best of them. I expect him to challenge Matteo and steadily assert his presence within the first team.
Attacking Left Wingers
This is the domain of Lorenzo Insigne ( 29, 34 caps), pretty much Mr Napoli and now celebrating his fifteenth year as a Blue. Blessed with flair and the kind of first touch that can make grown men weep, he’s an important player who has a fantastic affinity with the fans. I suspect I may have made a mistake in stripping him of the captaincy. Normally I don’t like giving the armband to a forward, but he wasn’t happy with my decision and I hope this doesn’t develop into a bigger issue. Another potential concern is his sharing of the role with Hirving Lozano ( 25, 39 caps). A costly £34 million acquisition from PSV back in 2019, it’s his flexibility that stands out as a real asset alongside his superb agility levels. He can play just as happily out on the right wing, which may be crucial if and when injuries start to bite. The worry is that he expects to play a lot of games, and while we hope to have a big season, remaining in all competitions and offering many appearances, this has the makings of a stroppy maelstrom. Chelsea want him.
Traditionally our main man is Dries Mertens ( 33, 92 caps), now entering the waning years of his career and with two years remaining on his contract. A Neapolitan since 2013, scoring 93 goals in 236 appearances, Dries was a thrilling mainstay during the years when we offered a stiff league challenge to Juventus, and for now his physical levels remain staggeringly high. He also has great technique and, at a pinch, can fill in at left wing or as a shadow striker. The Belgian’s advancing years probably provoked the team’s £64 million splurge on Victor Osimhen ( 21, 8 caps). Tearing up the league at Charleroi and Lille, he’s a cracking pressing forward, great at playing himself into prime positions and whippet quick. The coaches are really excited about him, and the expectation is placed on Victor to wrest the starter’s role from Dries eventually.
Of the five strikers we started with I sold Milik and Llorente while retaining Andrea Petagna ( 25, 1 cap). Once upon a time he was a prospect at Milan, before signing for us via spells with Atalanta and a particularly fruitful loan period at SPAL. Some bright spark paid £10.5 million for Andrea and then placed him on the transfer list. He’s better than that, though realistically his status as a fringe player sounds about right. I don’t love target men, basically for their single usage, but he’s a tall unit, can head with the best of them and provides a strong presence up front.