Napoli brought in twelve new players over the course of the last year, seven in the summer and five during the season. That's a pretty hefty amount of change in a single year, especially when combined with a new manager with a very different tactical setup and way of doing things than the old one.
Napoli spent a lot of money on that overhaul (though much of it was funded by the sale of Edinson Cavani), and it's reasonable to expect both the club and fans to expect a pretty hefty return on that investment on the pitch. For the most part it worked out well, but not everything is perfect. With that in mind, today we're reviewing who came in and just how those investments have gone so far, starting with the Soldiers of Summer.
Statistical data from whoscored, with additions from transfermarkt for Coppa Italia data. Transfer fees listed are approximate and based on news reports from the time of purchase.
From: Real Madrid, €36 million
46 appearances, 41 starts
24 goals, 12 assists
Higuain was the biggest, highest-profile signing that Napoli made last summer. His purchase set the club record for a purchase (though only after the record sale of Edinson Cavani), which naturally brings with it massive expectations that no-one was sure that Higuain would live up to. After all, despite his obvious physical gifts, the Argentine had never quite lived up to the expectations set on him by Real Madrid fans, so how would he respond to the added stress of a huge transfer fee and a new country?
As it happens, quite well.
It didn't take Higuain long at all to adapt to his new circumstances, scoring in three of his first four matches and five goals total in his first seven in the league. In all he'd score 24 goals in 46 all-competitions appearances in his first season, adding a dozen assists for good measure. While he didn't provide the same bull-headed force up top that Napoli fans were used to from Cavani, the extra dynamics and interplay Higuain brought tied in so well to the system that Rafa Benitez introduced it was almost as though he was born for it.
This transfer could not have worked out much better for Napoli, and with Higauin being just 26 years old, there's no reason to see him seeing significant regression any time soon barring health issues. He did miss a handful of matches with various ailments and suffered knocks through other matches, but nothing seemed especially serious, so there should be little to worry over.
There were concerns about some frustrations coming out in an unfortunate matter during several matches in the middle of the second half of the season, but they were understandable, especially given the passion and desire that Higuain plays with. As long as he can keep his emotions in check in the future, and he did later in the season, there should be little to worry about.
Transfer Grade: B+ The only thing keeping this from an A was how huge the transfer fee was. It blew Arsenal's offer out of the water to an unnecessary degree, though that's hardly Higuain's fault in the end.
From: Real Madrid, €10 million
52 appearances, 46 starts
20 goals, 10 assists
The first reaction most people had to Jose Callejon's signing was, somewhat understandably, "huh?" Like Higuain and Albiol, Callejon came from Real Madrid, and was once one of the most heralded prospects in their renowned Castilla academy system. Key words being "was once"; Callejon was 26 when he was signed, and despite numerous chances had never really done much of anything interesting or notable with Madrid. His fee seemed rather weighty given his resume, and few were even cautiously optimistic that the deal would work out.
All those doubters would be proved wrong, loudly and repeatedly all throughout the season. In 52 all-competitions matches, Callejon would score 20 goals, an astounding total for a winger, and well above and beyond what even the most optimistic Napoli fans ever could have expected from him. Heck, most didn't even think he'd score that many in his Napoli career, much less in one season.
Callejon also showed a flare for creativity from wide areas, with a deft cross and a surprisingly effective through ball when he cuts in from the right. That helped him to his total of ten assists, and very likely would have doubled that if secondary assists were tracked (the assist to the assist, as it were). He's a nightmare on that right flank, and even the best left backs in Italy had a hard time containing him most matches.
The one thing that Callejon struggled with as the season wore on was fatigue. His 52 matches were by far a career high, with his previous best of 37 coming four years ago during a brief stint at Espanyol. Napoli's lack of depth in the attacking midfield band meant that rotating Callejon out was a challenge, and as his legs wore out his effectiveness eroded. Once Napoli got back on a mostly once-a-week schedule after their Europa elimination, he seemed to perk back up, and finished the season in strong form, with a key assist in the Coppa Italia final and goals in three of the last five league matches.
So long as Napoli properly strengthen their attacking depth, which they seem to intend to do, fatigue should be a minimized issue for Callejon. With a full summers' rest and more time to learn Rafa's system, Serie A defenders will have much to fear from him next season.
Transfer Grade: A+ In terms of value for production, you can't ask for much better than this deal. Even if Callejon regresses significantly for the rest of his contract, he's already repaid his transfer fee and then some.
From: Real Madrid, €12 million
46 appearances, 44 starts
1 goal, 2 assists
Albiol wasn't the most inspiring signing, truth be told, but Napoli were in dire need of a quality center back, and he seemed potentially worth the gamble. The third of Napoli's "Madrid castoffs", Albiol bore question marks of his own after being deemed surplus to requirements in Spain's capitol. Despite Real Madrid's heavy match schedule and often shaky defense, Albiol had played just 28 league and seven Champions League matches over the past two seasons combined.
Still, his experience, leadership, and once-obvious quality were needed in Naples, with Paolo Cannavaro declining rapidly, Hugo Campagnaro gone, and neither of Federico Fernandez or Miguel Britos having proven much quality of their own. Questions or no, he was instantly Napoli's best central defender, and fans could only hope that the gamble would pay off.
For the most part, it did. Albiol was a rock in an otherwise very shaky defense in the first half of the season, frequently being the only quality player Napoli had along the back line in a given match. He bailed the defense out on a number of occasions, and much of Napoli's early success can be credited to him.
His experience paid off well in the big matches as well, with Albiol doing a lot to keep the defense cohesive and effective in the Champions League, particularly in the Marseilles matches and the home match against Arsenal.
The second half of the season was not so kind to Albiol, though. Fatigue seemed to get to him and never really let go, forcing a number of mistakes that cost Napoli time and again. Too often he was caught stepping up too aggressively and letting runners in behind him, or getting too passive on set pieces and getting taken advantage of. Sometimes Fernandez was there to save him, but not always, and too many points were lost in the second half because of his mistakes.
Transfer Grade: B- This wasn't a cheap deal, and while Albiol had a lot of early success, the second half struggles undid a lot of that. He'll be 29 not long after next season starts, which means he has one more peak season left in him, maybe two if Napoli are lucky. If they're not lucky, we may have already seen his peak. Given that Albiol has never been a top-shelf athlete, that's not out of the realm of possibility.
Jose Manuel "Pepe" Reina
From: Liverpool, unknown loan fee
43 appearances, 42 starts
46 goals against, 13 clean sheets
With Morgan de Sanctis on the outs and Champions League football in the offing, an upgrade at keeper was necessary. Pepe Reina was out of favor in Liverpool and had been replaced, and was in need of a new home; Napoli had already purchased Rafael Cabral, but wanted a veteran to carry the reins while Cabral got occasional starts to continue his development.
It was a good match between the two clubs, and a loan was quickly arranged. Reina started the season strong, highlighted be assured Champions League performances and the first ever penalty stop on Mario Balotelli in a competitive match.
But then the Pepe Reina that got driven from Liverpool showed up more and more often as the season progressed, with bizarre errors piling up like kindling. Rushing off his line when it's beyond counter-productive, not bothering to notice or track runners on goal, repeatedly plowing over his own defenders on set pieces... it all happened too often and in too costly of times.
In the end, he's only with Napoli on loan. It sounds like all three parties are open to the idea of a permanent return, but it only makes sense for Napoli on the right terms. Those right terms would include a significant reduction from his wages, which are believed to be in the region of €100,000 per week.
Transfer Grade: B He did the job he was brought in to do. Whether or not he comes back next season doesn't much matter, though it'd be nice if he did given Rafael's injury.
From: PSV Eindhoven, €9 million
47 appearances, 27 starts
13 goals, 8 assists
Few seemed to know what to make of Mertens' signing when it was made. The Belgian international attacking midfielder had seen a fair amount of success with PSV in the Eredivisie, but there's been countless examples of successful Eredivisie attackers turning in to huge flops in better leagues.
Many feared his fee would be wasted as they felt he was a redundant version of Lorenzo Insigne, but even if that were the case, that wouldn't be so bad with Champions League football requiring high quality depth for rotation. Instead, what Napoli got was a dynamic, driven attacker who could provide quality service into the box and make a giant nuisance of himself in front of goal.
Mertens' value was immense this season, scoring 13 all-competitions goals in 47 appearances, and providing an impact off the bench, where he emerged in 20 of his appearances. He played all across the attacking midfield band, and his versatility and drive were much appreciated by Napoli fans. At 27, he's probably not going to get much better than he is now, but he can still give Napoli plenty of impact for several years yet to come.
Transfer Grade: A Did everything you could have hoped for and then some. Made a huge impact in a number of roles.
From: Santos, €5 million
11 appearances, 10 starts
9 goals against, 6 clean sheets
Rafael was brought in as a goalkeeper for the future, and is one of the best young keepers to come out of Brazil since Julio Cesar. Reina's various injuries pressed him in to service for eleven matches, and after a rough adjustment period that last about a match and a half he really opened some eyes.
Cabral showed some excellent decision-making and shot-stopping reflexes, including some absolutely tremendous saves against Swansea, Inter, and Hellas Verona. He still needs to work some on command of his area and defending set pieces, but those seem to be issues more in consistency rather than lack of ability.
Unfortunately, Rafael is currently rehabbing from a torn ACL that he suffered against Swansea. If healthy, he probably would have made a lot more than his eleven appearances, as he was in strong form and was noticeably outplaying Reina. Once healthy, he could be a top-quality keeper for Napoli for a long time to come.
Transfer Grade: B Solid start, with some shaky moments. The injury kind of has everything on hold, though.
From: Estudiantes, €7.5 million
22 appearances, 6 starts
7 goals, 2 assists
Another buy for the future, Zapata provided some surprising contributions down the stretch. The big Colombian had a hard time getting playing time early in the season, but in the second half as Higuain was carrying knocks and needed rests, Zapata slowly got more playing time, and frequently was able to capitalize on it.
He started just seven times, but took full advantage when he did, scoring five goals and assisting on a further two when he did. He also scored twice as a substitute, which is no mean feat considering that most of his substitute appearances were under fifteen minutes.
Zapata has shown a tremendous amount of growth as a player over the last year, coming in as an incredibly raw young forward, and ending it considered as a legitimate option to be a true backup to Higuain next season. His size and athleticism gives Napoli a good change of pace or "plan B" as it were to bring on as a substitution, and gives matchup problems to most Serie A sides.
Right now most of Zapata's feasting is on the minnows of the league, but that's hardly a bad thing for rotation purposes, especially when trying to save Higuain for bigger matches. He's got a lot of growth as a player still to go, and has that "it" factor that makes evaluators think that Napoli have something special on their hands with the big Colombian.
Transfer Grade: B- It's hard to give him a higher grade based on his current production, but he's definitely shown the ability to do so much more.