Napoli break with tradition as Rafael Benítez's team takes shape

Michael Regan

Napoli coach Rafael Benítez will be under pressure right from the Serie A season opener, after several high-profile arrivals at the San Paolo.

Despite their recent success, Napoli have been quite risk-averse over the last few seasons. They've maintained their competitiveness by signing relatively low-cost proven Serie A players, with the only big exception being the purchase of Eduardo Vargas from Universidad de Chile in December 2011. Gökhan Inler, Blerim Džemaili, Valon Behrami and Goran Pandev all arrived in the last couple of years with bags of Italian experience, and only Inler cost more than €10 million.

Throughout, coach Walter Mazzarri was reluctant to change, sticking doggedly to the same formation and personnel. Six players who started his first game in charge -- a 2-1 win over Bologna in October 2009 -- were regulars in Napoli's first team through to his resignation this May, with the partenopei starting last season with the second-highest average age in Serie A (28.8).

Replacing him then, was always going to be a challenge, not least with a coach so radically different to Mazzarri -- both on and off the field -- as Rafael Benítez. There were fears about how the squad would adapt to a different style of play, and how well summer signings would aid that transition. Fortunately, president Aurelio Di Laurentiis has broken with tradition to allay at least half of those concerns.

Starting with Napoli's most significant buy; ex-Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuaín has arrived for a club record fee of €40 million, plugging the gap vacated by the Paris-bound Edinson Cavani. Higuaín has scored almost 100 league goals in the last five La Liga seasons, excelling as a mobile, intelligent lone striker. He should find fitting into Benítez's 4-2-3-1 easy. Despite the hefty fee, it's difficult to think of many better signings Napoli could've made to replace El Matador.

Higuaín's former Real Madrid teammate Raúl Albiol is Napoli's second most-costly arrival, setting them back €12 million. The centre-back is a useful addition to an ageing defence, and will be able to aid the transition from a defensive trio to a back four. However, despite Hugo Campagnaro -- the partenopei's best defender over the past couple of seasons -- leaving the San Paolo to reunite with Mazzarri at Inter Milan this summer, reinforcing a solid defence wasn't one of Napoli's top priorities.

Rather more concerning was their lack of natural wingers; seen as surplus to requirements while Mazzarri persisted with wing-backs. They've acted quickly to address this gap, continuing their raid of Real Madrid's stock of good-but-never-going-to-be-world-beating players in José Callejón, who arrives alongside PSV's Dries Mertens. Both should slot either side of Marek Hamšík in Napoli's attacking midfield trio this season, in an impressively formidable attack.

Now, there are no obvious weaknesses in the Napoli squad. Every area they had to strengthen this summer has been strengthened, and it's easy to see how the team will fit together. The partenopei will hopefully be rewarded for taking a riskier approach in the transfer market; buying players from abroad where they'd have previously looked for cheaper deals within Italy. Benítez's influence has been obvious, with the distinctly Spanish flavour of their purchases indicative of the freedom he's been given over identifying targets. Unfortunately for him, it means the pressure will be on right from the outset.

Napoli's safe transfer strategy of the last few seasons proved successful, though ultimately under Mazzarri their squad started to stagnate. Now dragged into a radical new era by four of their nine most expensive transfers ever, Napoli will be expected to hit the ground running. President Aurelio De Laurentiis gambled with Benítez's appointment, and has undeniably backed it up with €80 million worth of players in the new coach's image. Now it's up to Benítez to deliver -- and right from the season opener against Bologna on 25th August.

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