Boring. Defensive. Static. Old. Slow. These are the words most often used to describe Serie A by fans outside the league. Despite those who adhere to the ways of calcio extolling the league’s virtues, it was hard to deny that many of those words did apply to Italian football. But some teams in Serie A are trying to change that image, and one of those is going to be in Champions League action against Real Madrid on Tuesday: Napoli.
While much of the focus in Serie A has been in the northern half of the country, where teams like Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Fiorentina rule the roost, it’s a southern team in Napoli that has been doing its best to change the entire dynamic of the league. Over the last five years they’ve been doing just that, regularly slugging it out with the best teams in the league and playing football that’s anything but boring, defensive, static, old, or slow.
Instead, Napoli has continuously found ways to be fresh, young, and exciting, playing dynamic, eye-catching football and being damn good at doing it. They have yet to grab that brass ring and win Serie A, but they’ve done basically everything else: performed well in the Champions League, set Europa League records, won the Coppa Italia, and upset the odds at every turn. Juventus may be the dominant force in Italy right now, but Napoli has put the fear of God in them on more than a few occasions, never showing any fear or backing down from any fight.
Of course, Napoli is far from perfect — there’s a reason they trail Real Madrid 3-1 on aggregate, after all — but their eagerness and energy never fails to impress. They play attacking football, mostly through the front four of Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens.
The latter has been a revelation this season. Mertens has been forced to play as a false nine for the first time in his career and embraced it with shocking ease, scoring goals in bunches and keeping Napoli’s league-best attack cruising. His performance over the weekend brought him up to 18 league goals.
The partenopei have been incredible at sharing the ball, too. They have four players in Serie A’s top 10 for assists with six or more apiece, while Mertens, Faouzi Ghoulam and Allan all have four assists apiece as well.
Napoli is not the only team in Serie A trying to re-make the league’s image — a fellow southern team and Derby del Sole rival Roma is on a similar path, doing everything they can to take the game to their rivals. They lost to Napoli at home on Saturday, but are actually getting the better on the partenopei on the season, with a two-point edge on them in the table. The match between the two teams was wide open, fast, and anything but defensive.
xG map for Roma - Napoli. My stream sucked but I should have this on the dvr at home. What I saw looked awesome, looking forward. pic.twitter.com/96QaZMnk9N— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) March 4, 2017
Other teams have been starting to try to break that stodgy, defensive mold, as well, though not quite to the same success that Napoli and Roma have enjoyed. Another southern team, Pescara, have shown a dazzling attack in Serie B in recent years, as well, but their talent level just hasn’t been good enough to get out of Serie A’s basement this season. Inter and AC Milan have tried to develop more potent attacks, though to decidedly mixed results.
Both teams have actually been significantly better when their defenses have been in form this season, though looking at their transfer records the last couple of years there’s no doubt that they’ve tried to get significantly better in the final third. Another team trying to break the mold is Fiorentina, though good intentions haven’t been able to overcome poor coaching there this season.
Napoli has a mountain to climb against Real Madrid in the Champions League on Tuesday, but if they can put in a good showing and give the defending champions a fight, they can show the world just how far they’ve come in the efforts to change the league. They still have a long ways to go before they can truly fight with the best in Europe, but if there’s any team in Italy that can change the way the world sees Serie A, it’s going to be Napoli.