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In search of a settled defensive partnership

With five solid center backs at the club we take a look at who might be the best duo in the years to come.

SSC Napoli v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

The ghost of last season’s title run still haunts the halls of Castel Volturno with the expectation to do better this year and go that one step further. A bigger squad assembled to now combat the faults of the previously limited and bare-boned one gives coach Maurizio Sarri many more options to pick from — unfortunately for the impatient fan among us, he is waiting for all his new signings to become acclimatized to his system and their new environment in Napoli. Sarri could be said to be cutting off his nose to spite his face here by not incorporating these new players while some of his most trusted lieutenants are looking tired both physically and mentally others are itching to make their debuts.

One of the areas of the pitch that he is blessed with options is in central defense having five solid players vying for just two positions. Kalidou Koulibaly is a lock for one of those spots the other seems to be up for grabs with Spaniard Raul Albiol out injured since the Benfica game but due back soon.

As Maurizio Sarri prefers to opt to play a high line in defense, a key attribute for his center backs to have is the ability to recover quickly, be it through speed or being able to read the game and be in the right place at the right time. Albiol is generally quite good at reading the game, but especially as he’s slowed and injuries have taken their toll, getting to the right place can be problematic, so with that in mind, who is really the best fit to play next to Koulibaly?

Vlad Chiriches is probably the fastest and quickest to recover of all the center backs and seems to love a last-ditch tackle, but the problem here is that he can often be caught out of position. Chiriches plays on the edge, taking far too many unnecessary gambles in over playing his way out of trouble. He is, however, also undoubtedly the most dangerous defender from corners and set pieces.

Nikola Maksimovic has the physique, positioning, and the calmness to play it out from the back without disrupting the natural rhythm of the Napoli game plan. He has been unlucky in that the games he has played — despite being part of some poor defensive performances, Maksimovic has typically been very solid while other players have been at fault for defensive lapses of concentration that led directly to goals. Going forward we should expect him to get much more game time that should hopefully see him and Koulibaly form a solid partnership.

Albiol’s absence has been thought by many the pundit, fan, casual watcher and Grandmother to be a massive contributing factor in Napoli’s recent woes at the back. His leadership and experience have been sorely missed, with his partner Koulibaly’s game suffering as an after effect. The communication at the back just isn’t the same without the Spaniard, and without him Hysaj, Ghoulam, Allen and Jorginho have all be found guilty of switching off at times, especially Jorginho. The Italo-Brazilian has maybe missed Albiol just as much as Koulibaly has — Jorginho’s game before the injuries to Milik and Albiol was all about receiving the short pass from Albiol and rolling it forward into the striker, benefiting Milik and Napoli greatly, and helping set up many of Gonzalo Higuain’s scoring chances a year ago.

Koulibaly seems to have had to take the mantle as defensive stalwart and leader off the pitch onto his shoulders but sadly Napoli’s defending in the full back positions and the midfield shield has not been like it was last season.

There is something else haunting the halls of Castel Volturno and that is Lorenzo Tonelli, the same Lorenzo Tonelli that played under Sarri for three years and has now been seemingly forgotten by his old coach. Tonelli is quick, has good positioning, is a good reader of the game and loves a tackle he deserves to get his chance playing in a defense that has at times looked amateurish seeing as the excuse of not being up to speed in Sarri’s football does not apply. He was injured at the start of the season and initially we were told that he wasn’t fit enough yet, but he’s been on the bench frequently of late and still has yet to see the field.

There’s no obvious answer here, with each player having their own benefits to them. But the one clearly obvious thing is that Napoli need to get this problem solved soon, for the good of the team’s defense and for the sake of the fans’ blood pressure. The sooner the defense’s problems get solved, the quicker Napoli can get back to playing at their best again.