After all the horse trading and at least one club legend stinking out some other place, I have what I feel is a better balanced and younger squad. Before going into the position-by-position write-up, here’s a grid that breaks down the players in order of priority. Homegrown in Italy players are shaded green. It’s blue for those who are homegrown in the club.
This unit is now decisively led by Alex Meret ( 24 years old, 1 cap), who saw off the challenge of previous regular David Ospina and kept clean sheet after clean sheet in 2020/21. Those are high standards to maintain, and the major criticism of him is that he was bound to look good statistically when he played behind such a good defence. In his favour Meret was world-class against Barcelona, who can breach Hadrian’s Wall with their attacking prowess. He’s well on his way to becoming a leading Serie A keeper. Behind him is Sergio Asenjo ( 32, 1 cap), replacing Ospina because he’s happy playing as back-up. A highly competent choice with more than three hundred league games in his history, Sergio is a great distributor and smashing at communication. We know that we’re in safe hands with him. Finally there’s Nikita Contini ( 25, 0 caps), retained largely for his homegrown status and showing few signs that he will emerge to challenge Meret at any point.
Giovanni Di Lorenzo ( 28, 16 caps) is an important wing-back for us and considered to be a leading Serie A player. Technically gifted and capable of putting in pinpoint challenges, the only doubts revolve around his injury record. I considered letting him go to resolve the matter, but he’s pretty loyal to the cause and I’m just as happy that he has decided to stay. He’s ably deputised by Mattia De Sciglio ( 28, 39 caps), a consummate squad player who I’m delighted to welcome to the San Paolo. A fine role model and consummate team player, his numbers aren’t as good as Di Lorenzo’s but there can’t be many things that he hasn’t seen in the game and he’s looking forward to his fresh start.
This is the province of Alex Grimaldo ( 25, 0 caps), in for his second term as a Neapolitan having enjoyed a good first season that was punctuated with significant injury lay-offs. A fantastic dribbler and good crosser of the ball, his hope is to eventually usurp Jordi Alba in the Spanish national team; greater robustness on his part will be necessary. I’m very pleased to welcome Luca Pellegrini ( 22, 0 caps), here on loan from Juventus and considered to be one of the country’s bright prospects. Hard working and quick, he’s already keen to turn his stay into a permanent one, though persuading the Old Lady to sell will be an altogether tougher prospect.
A celebrated area of the squad that achieved great success last season, the line is led by captain Kalidou Koulibaly ( 30, 51 caps), a formidable defender who must be up there with the best currently playing in Italy. We’d miss him if he left, which came close to happening when Manchester United bid for him in the summer. Happily, he had no interest in going. His regular partner in crime is Kostas Manolas ( 30, 51 caps), close to operating at the same high standard. He has the height advantage to be a target in set-piece situations, otherwise he is a superb no-nonsense defender.
Our best alternative is now Eric Garcia ( 20, 2 caps), a free signing from Man City and valued at £24.5 million. The newcomer expects plenty of football and is going to get it – he has the potential to be as good as our starters, and with them both entering their fourth decade he represents a future for the unit. Mentally his powers are astonishing; he’s a smart cookie and it’s in the technical areas of the game where he specifically needs to develop. Armando Izzo ( 29, 3 caps) had a very good first season back with the Partenopei, refusing to be overawed by the company he’s keeping and fitting in well. A ball-playing stopper with fine technical assets, Armando helps us to sustain a full-sized squad thanks to his homegrown status, and it’s for the same reason that we have promoted Sebastiano Luperto ( 24, 0 caps) after a year on loan at Crotone. The fringe player has made a handful of appearances since signing from Lecce back in 2014 as a bairn. Now given his opportunity to stake a place and ready to be tested against lesser opposition, he’s being mentored by Manolas.
In the wake of Bakayoko and Demme both leaving the club, the pair has been replaced with Sandro Tonali ( 21, 3 caps), one of Italy’s most exciting prospects and someone who played well for Milan in 2020/21. A deep lying playmaker who has already wormed his way into the international scene, Sandro has excellent passing faculties, and the sort of concentration levels that should be crucial as he patrols the gap between defence and midfield. Whilst I considered signing someone outright (Juve’s Mandragora was on my radar for some time), my feeling is that Stanislav Lobotka ( 26, 32 caps) can serve here really well. He’s now in his second full season with Napoli, and I hope to test his ability to dictate the game’s tempo and depend on his high composure levels. As a central midfielder, Stan wasn’t entirely comfortable, especially when we were pushing for goals, so it seems more natural to use him further behind.
Fabian ( 25, 16 caps) is the star man here, someone I like to think of as our De Bruyne, with a superb passing range and skilful abilities that make him pretty much complete. He isn’t even at his peak yet; his capacity to improve still further is frightening. In the meantime, his goals and providing of assists are exemplary. Fabian’s advanced playmaker complement is Piotr Zielinski ( 27, 66 caps), a star operator but someone who at times played within himself in 2020/21. Like his midfield partner, Piotr loves a killer ball and is all-round brilliant in his role technically; unexpected things can happen when he’s around. My feeling is that he’s yet to hit the heights consistently, nevertheless he was an ever-present last year.
It’s important to have good alternative to our two main men. Eljif Elmas ( 21, 29 caps) is an advanced playmaker/Mezzala who’s capable of producing real moments of excitement. Another great passer, Eljif’s real ken is in his off the ball movement, his restless tendency to put himself into advantageous positions and help out, though he’s a very long way from being the finished article. A work in progress then, but his final impact might be explosive. The unit’s new face is Gaetano Castrovilli ( 24, 1 cap), snapped up from Fiorentina for an £18.75 million fee that may turn out to be a real bargain. He fits in well with the group, bringing his own high-level technical ability, and he’ll work for hours. Smart and unpredictable, he was a positive presence during pre-season and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do.
Attacking Midfielders – Right
After a season on loan with us Matteo Politano ( 28, 18 caps) signed permanently from Inter. It was good that his transfer was pre-arranged, as Matt turned out to be excellent, scoring twelve goals and providing eleven assists as his constant creativity on the wing was a real boon. His abilities with free kicks and corners were another big plus. He played for us as though he’d been here for years, fitting in perfectly from the start and was named the Serie A Best Player of the Season for 2020/21. The only concern is a slight risk of injury, and it’s for this reason we are fortunate to have Riccardo Orsolini ( 24, 1 cap). Still improving as a footballer, Ricci’s natural enthusiasm made him try things that didn’t work out when he first got into the side, but since then he’s developed into a team player of some renown, physically excellent and working hard on honing his technique. We’re all excited about having him here; he should provide stiff competition for Matt.
Attacking Midfielders – Left
Napoli’s best attacking player operates here. I’m talking of course about Lorenzo Insigne ( 30, 47 caps), the short-arsed Neapolitan who was totemic for us in 2020/21. We might have sold his regular partner in crime when Dries Mertens left for Arsenal, but this team leader has resolved to plough on, torturing full-backs with his acceleration, flair and technique, scoring a stack of goals to help our cause. The message is clear – field Insigne, whether on the left or up front as a False Nine. If he is operating further forward then his position reverts to Hirving Lozano ( 26, 54 caps), a wonderful and unpredictable inverted winger who can use his pace to devastating effect. Capable of playing happily on either flank, Hirving’s downside was a degree of inconsistency that could make him anonymous in certain situations, notably against sides we were expected to beat soundly.
It’s this that made me sign another winger, Jeremie Boga ( 24, 8 caps), who had a thrilling season with Sassuolo before being put on the transfer list because of his contractual demands. Now playing for a bigger club, this former Chelsea man is a fantastic dribbler, dangerous on the ball and fully capable of striking with purpose and venomous accuracy. He’s a natural force but not the brightest, and his lack of ability in putting himself into good positions will need to be worked upon.
The aim last season was to slowly ease Mertens out for Victor Osimhen ( 22, 15 caps), which worked as the Belgian legend steadily waned in terms of his powers. Vic was a mega-money signing last summer, rather frivolously spent if you ask me, and it’s placed undue pressure on him as the transfer fee is a lot to live up to. Still, he emerged as 20/21’s top scorer, a pressing forward who takes advantage of his status as the fastest sprinter at the club, his uncanny ability to put himself into good positions, only really let down as he fluffs a number of his goalscoring lines. To back him up we have signed Patrik Schick ( 25, 36 caps), the onetime Roma advanced forward who is developing into a reliable presence for his country. The complementary bag of tricks he brings compared with Vic’s blunt force spearhead is staggering. He isn’t as quick (who is?), but he’s a better finisher and brings superior levels of vision to the table. It will be fascinating to see how he settles in. He was great for us in pre-season, and has much to prove after the supporters have complained that we might inherit the poor scoring form he was in during his latter days as a Bayer Leverkusen forward.