Almost all Napoli fans can agree that Pepe Reina is a great champion and symbol of both the team and the city. That being said, Napoli’s reliance on the Spanish keeper has posed problems and led to some points being dropped in the first half of this season. Reina however, is much more than a shot stopper, and that is where the difficulty lies. He is a leader, a veteran and, above all, he is an excellent distributor of the ball. The question on many Napoli fans’ minds, and hopefully on the minds of the team’s brass is: what is the problem and how should it be fixed?
Reina is a building block for this Napoli side. Consistently first on the team sheet and there is no real debate. Napoli have no other legitimate option. Judging by Sarri’s rotation in the Coppa Italia, Rafael is ahead of Sepe and not many Napoli fans can forget the past blunders of the Brazilian backup. Reina however, has been less than ideal. From the simple eye test, he has seemed unable to make difficult saves, and in some instances even easy ones. Statistically, he has also had a tough time when compared to other keepers. Recalling the earlier article on this blog talking about Reina’s low save percentage, I decided to do some digging, how does Reina stack up against the best of Serie A?
This table reflects particularly poorly on Reina. Using the statistics available on Fox Sports’ website I gathered a list of all keepers who played in 10 or more matches. For a team aiming to compete for a title, and potentially aiming to make a deep run in Europe, a keeper who performs below league average simply isn’t going to cut it. Though it is impossible to say how many points were lost as a result of Reina’s difficulties stopping the ball, had Reina been performing at a mere league average level, Napoli would have conceded four less goals. Though this seems minimal, 8 goals over the stretch of the season could be the difference between Champions League and Europa League; in a season as tight as last, it could have been the difference between second place, and dare I say it, a Scudetto. If one considers that Napoli’s 3 losses were by a combined margin of 4 goals and that of Napoli’s 5 draws, only 1 was scoreless, it becomes easy to see where one save could be the difference. Compounded over the length of a season, this is meaningful.
I also feel that I would fail in writing this article properly if I didn’t mention the eternal Buffon who sits just above Reina. A closer look would reveal that his numbers may be slightly skewed or that perhaps he simply is not the keeper he once was. Buffon’s number of shots against is extremely low. This low number of shots against provides a small sample size which may skew the numbers. Alternatively, Juventus’ strong back line may be masking his weakness. Not to take anything away from a true legend, but the Bianconeri defend so well that nearly anyone could look good back there.
Finding a replacement for Reina may prove difficult for Napoli for two reasons, the first is that the options aren’t great and the second is that Reina brings more to the table than his shot stopping.
Talented young keepers are a scarcity in Italy. De Laurentiis purchases youngsters, there is no getting around that. In the search for a keeper this makes perfect sense. A young keeper to play cup matches and learn from Reina, who is still a great leader, is the dream scenario. Skorupski and Perin stand out as the most talented keepers who fit the bill but neither is available. The Polish keeper is extremely talented but unfortunately owned by Roma. There were never any rumours linking Skorupski to Napoli and there likely never will be. Perin, only a week ago, seemed like the ideal candidate. Italian, young, and talented. His agent even hinted at a potential move to the Partenopei. Any possibility of a transfer saga was brought to a screeching halt when Perin was put out of commission for the rest of the season due to a serious knee injury.
Replacing Reina may not be so easy, even if the right player was out there. Pep Guardiola couldn’t find a place for Joe Hart at City because of his inability to move the ball effectively from the back. Sarri requests a similar skillset from his keepers and Reina is excellent in this regard. The ability to effectively move out from the back and launch counter attacks may be of enough value to offset Reina’s sub-par shot stopping. Moreover, Reina has an excellent relationship with his teammates and is a great leader. He plays a role in Napoli’s success with his demeanor and influence on others and that may be invaluable and irreplaceable. Although it may seem like Reina should be replaced, it is difficult to quantify his influence on the team since it extends beyond his ability to save the ball. It is clear to me however, that Napoli currently do not have his heir in their system. Sepe and Rafael are not the answer, and with Pepe aging, a young understudy is needed.