So. Yeah. That didn't go so hot. We were hoping Napoli would come away with three points and an impressive performance against Sassuolo, and, uh, that didn't so much happen. It wasn't a full-on meltdown like we saw too many times last season, but Napoli definitely looked like a team with a transition in progress.
Of course, that's exactly what Napoli are right now, and the result as it stood gave us things to think about for Napoli's near future. It also, however, taught us a few lessons, lessons that hopefully can be used to make things better and prevent further results like Sunday's.
1. Christian Maggio looks pretty much done
Maggio has been a great player for Napoli for a long time, but over the last two seasons he's steadily declined, and today he just didn't look like he was anywhere close to "having it." He was glacially slow, and at least partially at fault on both goals, failing to so much as notice the goalscorer coming through his area on both Sassuolo goals. On the second goal Maggio actually almost looked like he was marking Pepe Reina instead of, you know, someone who isn't one of his teammates.
It's a good thing Faouzi Ghoulam is available next week and Ivan Strinic should soon be fit to start, because Napoli need Elseid Hysaj on the right in a bad way. I'd almost rather see Vlad Chiriches deputizing out there if today is going to be Maggio's standard. Maggio can still have a place in the side, to be sure, but that place mostly needs to be in Coppa Italia and Europa League matches. If Napoli lean on him in the league through a third year of decline... yeesh.
2. There are problems, yes, but they're fixable
Napoli had some troubles with attacking movement. They had some trouble maintaining possession. They had a lot of trouble in defense at times. But none of these problems make you look and them and go "crap... now what?"
The attack mostly just needs time to gel and Maurizio Sarri settling on a single "primary" partner for Gonzalo Higuain, which will more than likely wind up being Manolo Gabbiadini. The big shift in tactics and the late arrival of Higuain in training thanks to the Copa America meant that Napoli's attack was always going to be a bit slow to develop, so this shouldn't have been totally unexpected. There was still promise, and that's a good sign.
The defensive issues in Sunday's match are almost all down to Maggio, frankly. Raul Albiol had some problematic moments as well, but they consistently came when he was cheating right to help cover Maggio. Vlad Chiriches was a rock, and while Elseid Hysaj struggled to help the attack, he was excellent against Domenico Berardi in the first half, and helped frustrate the young winger into the yellow card that eventually encouraged his substitution.
The midfield itself looked fairly solid. Marek Hamsik has taken to his new role extremely well, and was probably Napoli's best player on the day. Mirko Valdifiori's only negative contribution to the match was not shoving Dries Mertens off the ball on set pieces. David Lopez started shaky, but got stronger and stronger as the match went on. The issues mostly stemmed from the attack's cohesion problems and neither fullback getting up the pitch effectively to help them actually get the ball out of midfield -- given time and personnel tweaks, that shouldn't be a problem for long.
3. Maurizio Sarri makes weird substitutions
This is my only genuine, big, nit-picky concern with the match and how Sarri approached it: those substitutions were weird as hell. At the hour mark, Dries Mertens was clearly struggling for consistency and quality, but Gonzalo Higuain was pulled off instead. Now, Pipita wasn't exactly tearing up the pitch, but taking off your big gun at striker an hour into the match when there was another player clearly doing worse just doesn't seem that bright. Especially when you're talking about someone as ... temperamental as Higuain, maybe making that sub in your very first real match in charge isn't such a hot decision.
Then, when Mertens was continuing to struggle, he pulled off Lorenzo Insigne. Again, Insigne wasn't having a great match, but he wasn't the worst performer or most in need of a sub. Mertens was finally taken off with ten minutes to go, but you have to wonder how an earlier sub for their least effective forward player might have helped Napoli's attack in the later phase of the match.