COMMENT

Osimhen is not enough – Spalletti's refusal to learn may have cost Napoli Scudetto

Despite the Nigeria international's excellent showing against Fiorentina, the Azzurri dropped points at home on Sunday, and their manager's refusal to pay attention may rob them of a historic opportunity

(IMAGO/sportphoto24)

The top of the Serie A table is so hotly-contested that, even with eight matches still to play, the sense is that Napoli's 3-2 defeat to Fiorentina has ended their title charge.

Second-half goals by Jonathan Ikone and Arthur Cabral condemned the Azzurri to their fifth home defeat of the season. However, it is less their poor form on their home patch (they have only lost once on the road this season) than the stubbornness of manager Luciano Spalletti that looks to have cost Napoli.

The availability of leading man Victor Osimhen will have come as a relief to the former Inter and Roma boss, as the Nigeria international had been something of a doubt in the week. However, it was immediately clear they would struggle to assert themselves in an attacking sense against a difficult Fiorentina side. Not only did La Viola cause them problems in the reverse fixture at Artemio Franchi, but Spalletti once again demonstrated, with his selection, that he had failed to learn from, not just the misfortune of others, but his own team's attacking difficulties.

To put it simply: if Napoli were to have any chance at the title, it was obvious that Osimhen alone could not carry the burden upfront.

This is not a nascent realisation, nor is it a dig at the 23-year-old. Even here, he proved his worth, setting up the equaliser and taking his goal extremely well to give Napoli a lifeline late on. He is also the club's leading goalscorer in all competitions, even without the benefit of penalty kicks.

However, for all his gifts and potential, the Nigeria international simply is not complete enough just yet to be the leading man for a side with major aspirations. Spalletti should know this, especially as current Nice boss Christophe Gaultier figured it out over two years ago.

At the time in charge of Lille, Galtier was Osimhen's first manager in a major European league, and oversaw what was a thoroughly impressive debut (and only) season in French football for the former Charleroi forward. Osimhen hit 13 league goals in a COVID-truncated season and was voted the league's best African player.

However, by the time a halt was called to the Ligue 1 campaign in March 2020, Lille were in fourth, a point outside the Champions League places. A spotty first half of the season had left them too much ground to make up, and it was only after Les Dogues suffered three losses (including a shock defeat to struggling Dijon) on the bounce at the turn of the year that Galtier figure out what was wrong: Osimhen upfront by himself was not going to suffice.

From the trip to Strasbourg at the start of February, Loic Remy came into the starting lineup permanently, partnering the Nigerian in attack. After winning only eight and losing eight of their first 21 league matches, Lille would finish strongly, winning seven of their last eight.

If the trajectory of that season showed Spalletti what to do, the recent international window showed him what not to do. For all that Osimhen is a handful, at the highest level he is a lot easier to contain when isolated. He ultimately drew plaudits for his effort, but Ghana's centre-back pairing of Alexander Djiku and Daniel Amartey were able to keep him at bay (only just, but they did) with a fairly standard 'engage and cover' dynamic.

If Spalletti was not watching the African World Cup playoffs, then surely he must have been paying attention to his own team. In Napoli's previous defeat to AC Milan, Pierre Kalulu and Fikayo Tomori had Osimhen well in hand for the duration, and increasingly the sense is that if you can live with the striker physically (no easy task, it must be said), you can come away from a meeting with Napoli unscathed.

This is where Dries Mertens comes in, or at least should.

Not only is the Belgian the club's leading goalscorer of all time, but he also handily supplies the one thing Osimhen still does not have (and which Remy also did at Lille): a variety of movement inside the penalty area.

While Napoli's n.9 is eager (sometimes too much so) to run off the shoulder of defences, his timing and appreciation of space for dismarking leave something to be desired. This is why, in tandem, he and Mertens would work so well: the youngster brings the pace and physicality to force defences back, while the 34-year-old brings the sharp movement inside the box to exploit the gaps.

Spalletti's reticence to field them together is likely to do with his desire to maintain midfield superiority. However, the cost is a high one, especially as Lorenzo Insigne is not in great form (he has only scored one goal from open play this season). This leaves Napoli overly reliant on Osimhen to both lead the line and carry the overwhelming bulk of the goalscoring threat.

Besides, there is a workaround even: by deploying Mertens in the hole in a 4-2-3-1 and using Eljif Elmas on the right, the Belgian can contribute to build-up play in possession, while the Macedonian contributes to central compactness by tucking into the middle without the ball.

It really does feel like the solution is right there.

However, it may already be too late. Sunday's defeat leaves Napoli only two points off the top (potentially three of Inter win their game in hand), but even that might prove insurmountable. The margins are just that fine, especially with the reigning champions building up a head of steam and the Azzurri still to face potential banana skins in Roma, Sassuolo and Torino in the run-in.

It feels like Spalletti has missed a trick, and with that a chance at Scudetto glory.

Topics:

More from category

Recommended articles

Manchester City Kalvin Phillips on 6-year deal from Leeds United

Manchester City Kalvin Phillips on 6-year deal from Leeds United

Arsenal unveil Gabriel Jesus as new number 9 [Photos]

Arsenal unveil Gabriel Jesus as new number 9 [Photos]

Super Falcons receive Pinnick's blessing to defeat South Africa

Super Falcons receive Pinnick's blessing to defeat South Africa

Roundup: Hosts Morocco, Senegal off to winning start, Tunisia pummel debutants Togo

Roundup: Hosts Morocco, Senegal off to winning start, Tunisia pummel debutants Togo

Nigeria vs South Africa: Road to number 10 starts here for Super Falcons

Nigeria vs South Africa: Road to number 10 starts here for Super Falcons

Ex-Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr tips Victor Osimhen to replace Barcelona target

Ex-Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr tips Victor Osimhen to replace Barcelona target