When Napoli completed the signing of Marko Rog, the third young midfielder to join the team this summer, De Laurentiis bragged that he had built a versatile midfield capable of playing in many shapes and competing in Europe. Though the young Croat hasn’t featured much, the other two summer acquisitions have been spectacular in the Azzurri midfield. Diawara and Zielinski have slotted wonderfully into Maurizio Sarri’s 4-3-3, serving as like for like replacements for Jorginho and Allan respectively. Due to the team’s consistent positive results and relative good health in midfield, Napoli have thus far been able to rotate through five midfielders effectively, leaving Rog on the bench much of the time. This may have to change with Allan’s recent three-week injury.
In and of itself, that timeline is not disastrous. A three-week injury layoff is significant but rarely threatens to derail a team. In this case, it could not come at worse time. Napoli will be battling in important clashes across all three competitions in the coming weeks and all of the matches will demand a well-focused and rested squad. Within a week, Napoli will play away to Juventus and Roma while they host Real Madrid at the San Paolo to fight for Champions League survival. Judging by Sarri’s adherence to the high intensity press, Napoli’s midfield will need to run a whole lot over the course of those three matches and some rotation will be needed. The options seem slim. Though Rog is talented, he hasn’t played very much and launching him into the limelight of one of these key games would be quite the baptism by fire.
Diawara is a like for like replacement for Jorginho but without Allan, there is no true box to box destroyer to spell Zielinski and the options for a Hamsik replacement are slim. Last year Sarri’s Napoli seemed to run out of gas around February, Sarri’s squad rotation this year however seems to prove that he has learned from what happened. Now, once again facing a difficult end to the year’s shortest month, Sarri has a selection dilemma with several possibilities moving forward.
The first, and perhaps likeliest, outcome is for Sarri to weather the storm and stick to his guns. Zielinski and Hamsik would get all of the starts while Jorginho and Diawara alternate. Though this scenario seems desirable, it runs a substantial risk. Playing as often as Napoli will have to, in games as difficult as the ones upcoming, could lead to serious fatigue and even injury. The last thing Napoli need is another injury to a midfielder. If Napoli want to compete down the stretch they will need their key players to be fit and rested; in Sarri’s possession system the midfield is absolutely key.
The second option, one which would assuredly please the president, is to give Rog a few starts. He hasn’t featured much but he was an expensive acquisition in the summer and he has shown skill and effort in his rare stints on the pitch. Napoli play Atalanta at the weekend and though they are a tough opponent, Napoli are superior and the inclusion of Rog in the starting eleven shouldn’t trouble them too much, especially at home. Moreover, they set a brilliant example of how to deal with youth. Atalanta is defying all expectations this season while relying on number of youthful products. Sarri has given chances to the youngsters Diawara and Zielinski, there is perhaps no better time to give Rog a shot.
The third option, and perhaps most underrated one, would be to rotate Giaccherini into the midfield instead of Rog. Giaccherini is an experienced player having played plenty of important matches both on the club and international stage. While we’ve been inclined to think of Giac as a backup to Callejon, he does have experience playing deeper in the midfield as well. In fact, according to his agent, he actually performs better in that position. It’s not crazy to think that Sarri could prefer the Italian international over the young Croatian during this tough run of matches.
The final option, an incredibly unlikely one, is a change of shape. Napoli have experimented with more attacking formations when they have trailed this season at times pulling off a midfielder to play with four at the front. In order to keep the forces fresh, a return to a 4-2-3-1 could be in order. Not only would this allow Sarri to deploy less midfielders in the aim of keeping his box to box players rested, it would solve the Insigne/Mertens dilemma created by Milik’s return. Lorenzo could play as a 10 behind Milik while Mertens could carve up the left wing or vice versa. This option is purely speculative. Sarri’s 4-3-3 has been working magically all year and he has been loath to change formations in the last 2 years. Though it would be an interesting option, the stakes seem too high to experiment right now.
The next three weeks will be exciting, nerve racking, and decisive for Napoli and its supporters. Hopefully it works out for the best.