One of the most exciting developments of last season was the emergence of Marek Hamsik as a true, full-blown playmaker. We'd seen glimpses of it over the course of his Napoli career, but for the first time he was stepping up to kick ass and take names, and his efforts were well-acknowledged around the sport. With Rafa Benitez coming to town this season and his love of similar players to our spiky-haired Slovakian, there was palpable excitement as to what this season would hold for Hamsik.
Trouble is, we just haven't seen the Marek Hamsik we know and love much this season, much less the new and improved version we were expecting. There was a good stretch in the fall, and he was quite good against Juventus this past weekend, but more often than not he's just kind of been there on the field, doing some vaguely playmaker-y things, but not really being a big part of the squad. It's been frustrating to watch, and to watch his body language on the pitch it's been sometimes frustrating for Hamsik as well.
What's gone wrong, though? Why isn't Hamsik the dominating force we were expecting? It's an interesting dilemma, and one well worth investigating as his lack of presence is something that's hindered the squad at times this season and could have done a lot to put the club in a better position than they find themselves in now.
One thing that's been noticeably missing from Hamsik's game this season has been his movement without the ball. In past seasons, we've seen him aggressively seek out space between the lines to exploit and get in to good positions to split the defense with an incisive through ball or have a crack at goal himself. For some reason, though, he's not doing that nearly as much this year, and when he is he's either dropping too deep or too wide to be of much use.
Other times, Hamsik just doesn't move enough at all. He just mostly sits in about a 15 yard bubble of space, not being aggressive in his movement in any way and proving to be far too easy to mark out with a defensive midfielder. When that happens it becomes near impossible for Napoli to properly build up play; even with Jorginho in central midfield, Napoli need Hamsik as a link between that deeper band and the more advanced attackers, and without him either they have to drop too deep or Napoli become too reliant on the long ball.
Trouble is, there's not a discernible reason as to why. It can't be traced down to the tactics employed by Benitez; you need look no further than Steven Gerrard at Liverpool or Oscar at Chelsea to know that Rafa loves his playmaking midfielder to employ the same type of movement as Hamsik has shown in the past.
That might actually go a ways towards explaining why Rafa has been so willing to employ Goran Pandev in the hole at times even when Hamsik has been healthy and available. Despite his lack of playmaking ability on most nights, Pandev occupies the kinds of spaces that Benitez likes that player to be in. It can create some frustrating situations when Pandev doesn't actually do anything useful from those spaces, but it can be equally frustrating when Hamsik picks up the ball 45 yards from goal by the left touchline and has to chip it back to a central midfielder because he's too out of position to do anything else.
The other thing that's stood out that's been not-quite-right for Hamsik this season is that at times he seems to be pushing things a little too hard. That's lead to a lot more passes that are either over-hit or touched just a bit too finely than normal for him, which has lead to too many instances of him and his intended target grabbing their heads in momentary frustration.
The whole thing almost makes you wonder if Hamsik isn't feeling a lot more pressure this season than he has in years past. Sure, Napoli's been in some big campaigns while he's been with the club, but now he's the captain and this was supposed to be the season. The season that Napoli made a real Champions League challenge. The season that Napoli pushed for the Scudetto. The season that they went from "oh yeah, that team that's done some cool things" to "hey, that's NAPOLI, they're really good, we should watch them". None of that has happened though, and you can't help but imagine that the pressure of not getting there may have gotten to Hamsik to some extent.
I don't think I could really blame him if that is the case, but it's still concerning. If Napoli are going to reach the goals that the club has set for itself, then there's going to be more pressure coming. If it is true that Hamsik has crumbled some under the pressure of this season, thinking of what could happen when the stakes are higher is... not comfortable.
Hopefully it's something as simple as still not being quite "right" after the injuries Hamsik sustained earlier in the season, but in watching him play that just doesn't seem to account for everything we've seen. It would certainly explain a rusty readjustment period coming back from each injury, but not the sustained mediocrity we've witnessed.
Fortunately, one thing that Rafa Benitez has shown throughout his career is an ability to "fix" problems with his players, and help them find what they need to get the most out of them. Hopefully he can apply some of that magic to Marek Hamsik, though at this point it's likely we'll have to wait until next season to see the results. Still, if Rafa can get Hamsik back to his imperious best and beyond, it will be well worth the effort, and could go a long ways to propelling Napoli higher and farther than they've been in a long time.