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Napoli trying to lock down core, whoever that may be

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With news of extensions coming for Raul Albiol, Manolo Gabbiadini, and Elseid Hysaj, Napoli’s goal of trying to create a long-term core for the team is getting a little hazy.

SSC Napoli v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

The transfer window is long closed, but Napoli’s contract writers have still been a busy bunch. Marek Hamsik and Kalidou Koulibaly have already signed new long-term deals with the club, Raul Albiol just signed a new contract, and in the last few days news has emerged of imminent extensions for Manolo Gabbiadini and Elseid Hysaj. While all of this is certainly excellent news, it begs a question: what exactly is Napoli’s goal with these extensions right now?

While the reasoning behind some of the extensions are obvious — Hamsik is their captain and best player, and Koulibaly is a high-quality defender in equally high demand — others are slightly less obvious. Raul Albiol is getting into the downswing of his career and doesn’t look like a long-term piece for the club despite now being tied to Naples until 2020. Manolo Gabbiadini is a talented player, but has struggled to realize his potential with Napoli and may not be a great long-term fit with the club.

Hysaj is perhaps the most interesting case. He’s a very talented and very young fullback who has the potential to become one of the best right backs in Italy — and maybe in Europe — but his more defensive nature and Napoli’s apparent willingness to find a more attacking option at the position to pair with him would seem to make him more adjacent to their long-term project, rather than a core part of it. Despite that, they’re giving Hysaj a significant raise and a five-year deal just one season after his arrival.

Then there’s Jose Callejon, perhaps the most confusing re-signing of all. Back in July he put pen to paper on a deal that ties him to Napoli until 2020, one that gave him a hefty raise on what he had previously been making under his original contract. That deal rose a lot of eyebrows, because after his barnstorming debut season, Callejon’s attacking output dropped significantly, suffering through long runs of mediocre form and poor decision making. He turns 30 this season, so there’s no real way that he can be a core part of Napoli’s long-term vision, so why put so much of their financial resources into him at this point?

While it had previously been clear that Napoli were working on constructing a talented core for the team in the long run, now that vision is getting a bit muddled. Instead of locking up the players who were key to that objective — outside of Hamsik, Koulibaly, and last winter’s re-signing of Jorginho — they’re committing significant resources to players who, by all appearances, aren’t nearly as central to their goals.

Then there’s the use of release clauses. Napoli got bit hard on their use of release clauses in contracts when Juventus triggered Gonzalo Higuain’s €94 million release clause this past summer, forcing the exit of a record-setting goalscorer with Napoli unable to do anything about it. When he was signed that was an unthinkably high figure to be paid, but with the transfer market seeing incredibly dramatic inflation in the three years since then, that became a much more attainable fee for a club like Juventus — especially since they sold Paul Pogba for a world-record €110 million not long after.

But Napoli haven’t completely soured on the use of such clauses, they’ve just re-thought how they utilize them. The new deals signed by Koulibaly and Hysaj have release clauses of €70 million and €50 million, respectively, and they can only be triggered by foreign clubs, not by anyone in Serie A. Albiol, who just turned 31 and is therefore much less valuable, has a clause of just €8 million, seemingly mostly aimed at giving his home town club Valencia a firm number to pay if they still want him next summer.

Gabbiadini, interestingly, seems to have not been given a release clause, despite being actively shopped for much of the summer. That may actually prove to be a cunning move in the end — if he underperforms again this season, it will be easier to move him without one, and if he finally starts to realize his potential, Napoli won’t have to worry about another team sniping him away for less than he’s worth.

Now, all of this isn’t written to harp on Napoli’s contract strategy. There’s certainly some more questionable decisions — love you Ziggy, but that contract doesn’t make much sense — but tying down players to long term contracts can help keep the side settled, and helps with negotiation leverage should other teams come calling for a transfer. The biggest concern, though, is that their current approach to contracts seems to be muddling what was once a clear long-term vision. Hopefully that will get cleared up soon with further deals tying key players to Napoli, but for now we can only sit and wonder.