Does Napoli mutiny offer Koulibaly a clean break?


Napoli head into their midweek meeting with Liverpool in more disarray than at any previous point in recent memory.

While, outside of the inevitable Juventus title, the Serie A table has seen quite a bit of churn in recent years, Napoli were always one of the few other sides who seemed to have their affairs in order. Every off-season brought the hope of success, the belief that they might finally go one better and trip up the Old Lady.

The latest iteration of that quest began with great optimism at the start of the 2018/19 season. The arrival of Carlo Ancelotti was hailed as a masterstroke; for all that Maurizio Sarri's football was the envy of Europe, and had set points records, his constant carping and lack of silverware made it convenient for Aurelio De Laurentiis to let him move on.

In Ancelotti, Napoli had a savvy man manager with a track record of trophy success, especially in cups. He came with experience and had a point to prove after his time at Bayern Munich ended in disappointment.

There was also the sense that the lifespan of the current group was at an end, and so Ancelotti represented their last chance to make a play for the title: with both Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon already 32, and the likes of Allan and Kalidou Koulibaly in their peak years at 28, it was a squad ready to win right away.

Things have instead gone horribly pear-shaped: Napoli are not as good as they were under Sarri, both points-wise and stylistically, and this incident suggests a complete breakdown of communication and trust between the players and the management.

Napoli are seventh, winless in five, and crumbling. De Laurentiis has fined the entire squad as part of a disciplinary move and is reportedly keen on overhauling a huge chunk of the playing staff in the summer.

The move would see some of the more influential members of the squad dispensed with, a development which would not cause them too much grief, in truth.

In the case of Mertens and Callejon, they are both nearing the end of their contracts and might have left anyway, but they will not be the only ones who benefit from the cull: Allan was essentially priced out of a move to Paris Saint-Germain for two windows in a row (that might explain his reported truculence), and while the Parisians now have Idrissa Gueye, there will certainly be interest in him still on the continent.

The biggest beneficiary, however, could well be Kalidou Koulibaly.

The Senegal international has genuinely been a feature in discussions around the best defenders in the world in the last half-decade, the sole constant in a backline that has undergone some flux in recent years. 

Following the disappointment of missing the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in the summer – and the sadness of the eventual defeat – Koulibaly was less than stellar upon returning to Naples and struggled for form early on in the season.

Most notably, in the 4-3 defeat to Juventus, the 28-year-old was out-of-sorts, turned way too easily by Gonzalo Higuain for the second goal, before then shanking a clearance into his own goal with the last kick of the game.

He was clearly lacking in freshness, but perhaps there is more to it than that.

Having been in Naples for over five years, a comfort zone might well have developed, and even though Koulibaly is a consummate professional who has time and again professed his love for Napoli, there is a tendency toward regression in a situation such as he is in.

While he has rebounded to a level somewhat approaching normal, Napoli still lack the security that a fully-invested Koulibaly can give.

It makes one wonder – with racist abuse, the willingness of the club to throw him and his teammates under the bus, and interest from abroad in the form of Manchester United among others – if the perfect storm is not gathering.

There are a number of top sides in Europe who could do with a defender of his quality, especially in a cut-price deal: United, for one, but also Manchester City who lack an authority figure in defence since the departure of Vincent Kompany and have been forced to play Fernandinho at the back.

It has always felt like the Premier League is the logical endpoint for him, and while his family's attachment to Naples is a factor, he really has nothing left to prove in Serie A. The dream of a Scudetto looks as futile as ever, and De Laurentiis' ham-fisted approach to discipline affords him the best opportunity to leave, while retaining a measure of goodwill with the club's fans.