Rafa Benítez must learn to juggle: Napoli and the fine art of tinkering

Giuseppe Bellini

The Napoli manager made six changes from the side that beat Milan at the San Siro to the side that drew with Sassuolo at the San Paolo. To truly be considered title contenders, Benítez instead must learn to tinker with his squad.

Napoli supporters are still trying to wrap our heads around that Wednesday blip, that fun little draw against the league's worst side. You know, that one in which Blerim Dzemaili scored, Simone Zaza equalized seven minutes later, and then Napoli wore themselves out trying to get through a hardened Sassuolo defense? Yeah. That one.

Some of the partenopei faithful have been, for lack of a better phrase, freaking out. But is it due to the actual performance on the pitch, or to the criticisms Napoli received after it? Much of what came out right after the match was along the lines of "hahahahaha Napoli couldn't beat a team that lost 7-0 to Inter four days earlier hahahaha". Or, "Napoli still don't have what it takes to get results," as those who actually published their work rather than posted reviews on Twitter were more likely to say.

It makes one wonder, really, how many watched Sassuolo's performance against both Inter and Napoli. Were they aware of the seven changes made by Eusebio Di Francesco? Did they notice the shift, early in the second half, to a five man backline? What about the use of Zaza in place of Antonio Floro Flores, who has about as much bite as a tranquilized shih tzu with a muzzle on?

This isn't meant to excuse Napoli's performance. Rafa Benítez underestimated the neroverdi, and his side paid the price. I'm simply trying to make a point: the Sassuolo side that drew with Napoli at the San Paolo was not the same side that fell apart against Inter. The criticism should not be about whether the players can "get the job done" or "grind out results". Instead, the telescopic lens must be focused on Rafa, and the way he'll have to juggle an intense schedule filled with Champions League fixtures.

Napoli's greatest weakness is in their defense. While Raúl Albiol is proving to be a valuable pickup, he only plugs the gaping hole left by Hugo Campagnaro joining Walter Mazzarri at Inter. Despite Paolo Cannavaro's more than noticable decline, and  Federico Fernández remaining relatively untested since being brought to the club in 2011, the defense was deemed to be acceptable and no one else was brought on board.

Well, that theory was revealed to be patently untrue on Wednesday night. With Captain Cannavaro spending more and more time on the bench, his screws are starting to rust, making his reaction time even slower. Fernández, meanwhile, at 24 is still young for a defender, which is most likely why he's got a role on the bench. But pairing his positional (un)awareness with Canna's lack of speed seemed to indicate that Rafa was simply counting on Sassuolo never threatening.

In addition to building a house of straw in front of Pepe Reina's goal, Rafa rested Valon Behrami in favor of Džemaili. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but Behrami is by far more defensively minded, whereas Dzei, well, he just wants to let fire from 40 yards out. The changing of the Swiss was another sign that Benítez was taking a win as inevitable.

And then we come to the final problem: Marek Hamšík. Previously people spoke of Napoli having no vice-Cavani. Now the issue is having to determine who can be the vice-Hamšík. Marek looked tired and out of sorts against Sassuolo -- and no wonder, the poor man's been run off the ground since the start of the season. Sure, he got a bit of break after the intense internationals he faced, only coming off the bench against Atalanta. But the way the partenopei play changed after the Slovak entered the match only served to reinforce how vital Hamšík is. He then played to injury time against Dortmund, over an hour against Milan, and the entire match against Sassuolo. Marek's passes were mistimed, he missed a great chance in front of goal, and he wasn't able to orchestrate play in the same manner. If Rafa wants to show his side are truly capable of challenging for the scudetto, he's going to need to find someone who can fill Hamšík's boots against less-threatening opposition.

On Friday, Benítez attached his name to an article discussing the versatility of tactics in Serie A, with careful mentions of how coaches in Italy will switch up formations. After Sassuolo, Rafa is even more aware of the tinkering that he'll be up against. Let's hope he's learned his lessons about underestimating the shifts most sides will make after facing devastating losses or a string of poor results. In order to be true title contenders while still giving great performances in the Champions League, Benítez is going to have to figure out more than just his best Starting XI. He's going to have to tinker himself, rather than simply cobbling together a squad of bench players, assuming they'll easily find all three points.

Now, let's hope he's figured things out in time for the Saturday evening trip to Genoa.

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