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Napoli's strong season anchored by strong defense

Everyone is busy heaping praise on Napoli's attack for their surge to the top of Serie A, but it's the defense doing a lot of the work.

Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Napoli's incredible rise in form from the start of the season to reach first place in Serie A has drawn much acclaim, with their attacking force getting the lion's share of the plaudits. That's understandable, what with a rash of four- and five-goal performances under their belt -- but quietly, it's been Napoli's defense that has been the real star of the show.

Yes, you read that right. The defense is the root cause of the team's successes right now. The same unit that was so worthy of derision over the past two years has been the anchor of the team's turnaround in fortune over the past two months, putting in one stellar performance after another while freeing up the attack and midfield to do their thing without worrying about over-exposing the back line.

That quality has lead to a stunning 18 match unbeaten run, including a seven-match winning streak and 14 wins in Napoli's last 16 matches. Since their first win of the season on September 17th, Napoli have given up just four goals in those 16 games. Not four goals per game, not four goals a week, four goals total. At one point, Napoli went 38 days and 744 playing minutes without giving up a goal, the best mark in Europe so far this season. In fact, they were just 23 minutes from going the entire month of November without giving up a single goal. Even adding in Napoli's rough start to the season, when they gave up six goals in three matches, they've still only given up ten all season long. That's not just good defending -- that's incredible.

The most amazing thing is that it's not just one player driving this improvement. The whole group has been impressive of late, and while Kalidou Koulibaly has been drawing praise for some of his considerable performances in the middle, Raul Albiol has quietly been very effective as well, especially in the last ten games or so. Out wide, Faouzi Ghoulam has absolutely locked down the left flank, and Elseid Hysaj is enjoying a big breakout campaign on the right.

kalidou koulibaly

-Photo credit: Getty Images

And then there's Pepe Reina. The Spanish goalkeeper was much-derided for much of his first spell with Napoli, on loan for a season from Liverpool two years ago. He started out that campaign in fantastic form, but by the end of his time in Naples, Reina was an error-prone wreck. Napoli elected not to hold onto him, and Reina wound up spending a season with Bayern Munich that he spent most of in the training room rehabbing from various injuries. This past summer saw Napoli in need of a goalkeeper again, and they decided to roll the dice and bring Reina back -- and my oh my has that turned out to be a fantastic decision.

This isn't the same Pepe Reina we saw playing for Napoli two years ago. That Reina was a step slow, a bit complacent, and more than a little burned out after a few rough seasons in England that had seen his stock tumble. This season's Pepe Reina is healthy, hungry, and eager to prove that he's still got the chops to be one of the best goalkeepers around, something we haven't seen from him since his Anfield heyday five or six years ago. He's expertly marshaled his defense, and has been so much more effective in other phases of his game as well than we've seen from him in years.

But for all the individual performances and improvements in Napoli's defense, the key is how they've worked together as a unit. For the last two years, Napoli's defense has been a collection of individuals. They'd all react to things that they were seeing in front of and around them as they saw it, not functioning as a single defensive group. That would lead to multiple defenders chasing the same play, or guys seeing the same buildup differently and reacting different ways, or any of a dozen other things that all left Napoli's defense constantly stretched out and exposed. That's a recipe for disaster.

The key is how Napoli's defense has worked together as a unit

Now, though, they're actually playing as one concrete unit. If Raul Albiol steps up to meet an attack, Elseid Hysaj tucks in to protect the space he left. If Faouzi Ghoulam is caught upfield on a counter, everyone smoothly adjusts to make sure the left flank is covered. If Kalidou Koulibaly doesn't win a tackle cleanly, Albiol is sliding in behind him to clear the ball away, or one of Allan or Jorginho is sweeping back from midfield to pick the ball up and get it upfield.

And let's not discount the contributions of Napoli's midfield, either. Allan and Jorginho have been vital to helping out the back four, with the Brazilian pair dropping back out of midfield to help cut out a number of potential dangers before they even reach the defense, and always swarming around ready to help their teammates wherever needed. Allan's boundless energy helps him charge around to break up plays all over the defensive half of pitch, and Jorghinho's calm in possession and constant availability for an outlet pass from the defense has helped bail Napoli out of countless problematic spots this season.

That unified support and constant adjustment to the flow of the match has created a fearsome defensive unit. Even their reserves, especially Vlad Chiriches and Christian Maggio, have been able to step in and not miss a beat in this system instilled by Maurizio Sarri. It's been a joy watching them grow together and develop and improve, because you can actually watch the growth from match to match right now.

The interesting thing is that when you first look at Napoli's defensive statistics, they don't jump out off the page. They're only middle of the road in terms of tackles, and near the bottom of the league in interceptions and defensive clearances per match. What does stand out, though, is perhaps the most important stat of them all -- Napoli are third-best in the league in terms of shots given up per match. Only Fiorentina and Juventus have allowed fewer shots this season, and it's that ability to prevent shots that has helped guide Napoli to so much defensive success this season.

After all, your opponent can't score goals if they can't even get shots off, right?

So even though Napoli's impressive attack will draw all the headlines -- and make no mistake, it is a headline-worthy attack -- it's Napoli's defense that's been doing the most impressive work. If this group can keep up the level of quality that they've displayed this season, Napoli will be able to go on to a lot of success this season.