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Mercato Madness: Trouble At The Back

It's painfully obvious to even the most casual of observers that Napoli is in dire need of help in defense, but how might they approach a solution?

Get this man some help. Please.
Get this man some help. Please.
Stuart Franklin

If there's been one recurring theme for Napoli all season long, it's been a defense approximately as effective as a block of softened Swiss cheese. Despite being third in the league with 36 goals scored, the partenopei have a goal differential of 16 thanks to having given up 20 goals, a number that actually seems low when you think back on just how poor Napoli has been at the back.

While adding attackers during a transfer window is always a popular and attractive choice among fans, most Napoli supporters would probably be happiest with the focus of Antonio De Laurentiis and company being on acquiring additional steel for the defensive side of the pitch. But before we look at what can be done to fix it, let's first examine just what's gone wrong.

Raul Albiol has (mostly) been a stalwart in the heart of defense, but everything around him has been a shambles at one time or another. Miguel Britos and Federico Fernandez are both capable backups for a club expecting to compete for and in the Champions League, but neither has been able to consistently perform at the level needed this season. Fernandez has been the better of the two, but bringing in someone capable of relegating the South American pair to backup status could make a huge difference for Napoli going forward.

Looking out wide, however, is where you'll find the majority of Napoli's defensive woes. Christian Maggio has had some good performances, but he's also gone through some stretches of extremely poor form. Given that he's been much more of a defensive winger than a fullback (that sounds somewhat pedantic, but it makes a significant difference), that's not terribly surprising. Much the same applies to Pablo Armero, though he has yet to provide an appearance that can truly be quantified as "good". Camilo Zuniga has generally been good when he's played, but two injury spells have limited his playing time considerably. Giandomenico Mesto's time on the pitch is, as usual, best left forgotten. Anthony Reveillere was brought in to reinforce the fullback depth, but his appearances have hardly been inspiring so far.

Complicating matters has been a series of inconsistent performances in midfield. The Swiss trio of Gokhan Inler, Valon Behrami, and Blerim Dzemaili have had a frustratingly up-and-down run this season, with it being rare whichever two of them start a given match to both have a good day at the same time. As with the back line, another solid option for Rafa Benitez to choose from could do wonders.

Short version of all that? A lot of help is needed. Improved performances all round will help, but improved talent will be more useful in the long run.

The question is in how "big" of a splash Napoli can make next month. The club spent €87 million last summer, and while the sale of Edinson Cavani offset that significantly, it remains to be seen just how much more of an outlay De Laurentiis can put out to strengthen the club. Rumor has it that he's ready to spend big if need be, but rumors like that are rarely reliable this time of year.

So how should Napoli look at improving the defense? In an ideal situation, one more quality option at each position of center back, fullback, and central midfield would be added, in order to allow Rafa better rotation options and more choices to make in case someone falls out of form or gets injured. The center back and midfielder would be pretty straight-forward role-wise, but the fullback is a little murkier. Optimally, a left back would be brought in to usurp Armero's starting role, allowing for Maggio and Zuniga to rotate on the right (or even push Maggio forward to the wing to spell Jose Callejon occasionally) and give Reveillere a swing backup role.

But who could Napoli target? At left back, Nacho Monreal went to Arsenal just a year ago, but already seems to have fallen out of Arsene Wenger's favor, with the French manager preferring to use Kieran Gibbs at left back and holding Monreal back as a defensive substitute. With Monreal currently on the fringes of the Spanish national team, he'll be looking for much more playing time as the World Cup approaches this summer.

Sticking with Spanish targets, 20-year old Alberto Moreno of Sevilla has had a strong season for his club and looks a bright prospect for the future. While that would normally make such a player untouchable, Sevilla's financial troubles mean that they're facing at least a minor selloff, and Moreno is likelier to fetch a higher price than most of their roster. Domenico Criscito has been a regular in Zenit St. Petersburg's lineup since his return from a knee injury, but they've struggled to find playing time for summer signing and fellow left back Christian Ansaldi, so the Italian international could come available. If he does, Napoli should pounce on him quickly before another one of the country's big clubs brings him home.

Moving to the middle, Davide Astori is again being linked with a Naples move, but his all-too-regular fits of insanity and love of the own goal make it hard to stomach that idea. The Daniel Agger rumors have quieted since the initial flurry of them last week, but have yet to go fully away. The move still looks as likely as it did when we last spoke of it, but whether or not Denmark's captain plays against Manchester City today could potentially speak volumes as to his status at Liverpool. Some have even spoken of trying to pry Doria from Botafogo, but that seems even more unlikely than getting Agger.

A potentially more realistic, yet still massively impactful, option could be Porto's Nicolas Otamendi. The Portuguese giants seem to be in a bit of a state of flux at the moment, and given their usual turnaround with players like Otamendi, his almost three-and-a-half year tenure with the club looks to be about up. He won't come cheap (Porto players rarely do), but the Argentine international is a rock in defense and would add tremendous stability to Napoli's back line. If I had a dream defensive transfer, this would be it.

Looking at the midfield is a bit tougher to gauge. Napoli made a push for Lyon holding mid Maxime Gonalons, and he's a fantastic shield in front of the defense, and he very much fits the Javier Mascherano mold that Rafa Benitez likes in his more defensive midfielders. However, he's been drawing the attention of some of the bigger clubs in England as well recently, making it harder to feel assured in Napoli's odds of landing the player should they look that way. Speaking of England, some tenuous links similar to Aggers have formed around Chelsea mid John Obi Mikel, after the Nigerian shone under Benitez last spring only to fall out of regular use under Jose Mourinho this season. Another player potentially looking for shelter from the storm is Brazilian midfielder Jucilei, who's done a wonderful job with fallen Russian superclub Anzhi Makhachkala for the last few years, but currently finds himself in the middle of a sinking ship after a massive talent sell-off last at the club last summer.

While it's more likely that none of these names wind up in Naples by the time February first rolls around, this at least gives an illustration of the kinds of players Napoli could and should be looking at to bolster a badly flagging defense. In any event, it's clear that the bulk of Napoli's transfer attention should be spent here next month, though there are a couple other areas of the club that could use help as well. Those are areas we'll look at for you soon, so stick around, and share your thoughts below in the meantime.