After the fanfare and rave reviews that followed Victor Osimhen’s big-money move to Napoli, there were a few raised eyebrows when Gennaro Gattuso left the marksman on the bench in Gli Azzurri’s Serie A opener at Parma.
Frankly, the AC Milan icon received most of the criticism from Nigerians, many of whom made sacrifices to catch the 11:30 am local time kick-off (10:30 GMT). In fairness, there was a logic in sticking to the tried and trusted personnel from last season, favouring team chemistry above all else against a side that had defeated Napoli twice in the last three meetings.
Indeed, the abiding memory of supporters from the game might be of the marksman changing the game after his introduction on the hour. Without question, the former Lille striker’s entrance saw the side from Naples score twice in the final 30 minutes to record a gameweek one success at Stadio Ennio Tardini.
So, how did Osimhen’s appearance change the course of the game?
Truthfully, the first 45 minutes was devoid of any real invention or ingenuity.
On paper, Gattuso’s team lined up in a 4-3-3 with Dries Mertens deployed as a false number nine, flanked by Lorenzo Insigne and Hirving Lozano. Diego Demme was the holding midfielder with Piotr Zielinski and Fabian Ruiz either side, while the back four comprised Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Konstantinos Manolas, Kalidou Koulibaly and Elseid Hysaj. David Ospina was in goal.
In the defensive phase, Gli Azzurri quickly retreated into what looked like a 4-5-1 while their shape in the offensive phase fluctuated between a 4-3-3 and 4-1-3-2 with mostly Ruiz pushing forward to be alongside Mertens up front—at times, Zielinski did the same on the inside-left channel.
The half ended with Napoli failing to test Luigi Sepe in the home side’s goal with all five strikes—four of which were blocked—not hitting the target. The visitors’ plethora of crosses, six in total, didn’t find anyone in blue and white, and the only cross from 12 that found its intended target came after Osimhen’s introduction.
At the 60-minute mark, Gattuso had seen enough and in came the eagerly-anticipated 21-year-old number nine for defensive midfielder Damme, who had already been booked.
Immediately, the away side switched to a 4-4-2—with the West African mostly playing to the right of Mertens—in a partnership that showed signs of promise in the next 30 minutes. All in all, Osimhen created four chances in his half-hour appearance and three were for the Belgium forward.
With Napoli now going all out for the result with a change of shape which morphed into a 4-2-3-1 out of possession, which key moments underlined the Super Eagle’s influence on Sunday afternoon?
Pinnick:🗣️ "I'll say it now: Victor will do everything possible to match and even break the records set by a legend like Maradona [at Napoli]."— Goal Africa (@GoalAfrica) July 29, 2020
Do you think Osimhen will hit it big in Italy? 🤔@AfricanFtblHQ and @EddyDove share their views! https://t.co/AQKEl5z3EW pic.twitter.com/6OEY36df00
63rd minute: The opening goal for Mertens. Having lacked a focal point from crosses for the first hour, the Nigerian’s presence proved significant in Gli Azzurri’s first. A cross sent into the striker just about missed the frontman but Mertens, unbeknownst to the hosts’ defence, had ghosted into the area and broke the deadlock after the ball fell kindly to him in the six-yard box.
64th minute (First key pass): A minute after the goal, Osimhen sprinted into the inside-left channel, beat Parma centre-back Simone Iacoponi with a drop of the shoulder and set it up for Mertens on the edge of the area but the forward couldn’t hit the target.
68th minute (Second key pass): Here, the number nine brilliantly linked up with Mertens with a flick round the corner which freed the goalscorer. His well-placed shot (probably way too precise) from around the edge of the area hit the post.
69th minute (Third key pass): Even more inter-play between both strikers was evident. A flick round the corner, this time from Mertens, found Osimhen, who teed up Di Lorenzo. The right-back’s effort was saved fairly comfortably by Sepe.
73rd minute: However, their chemistry wasn’t always faultless. With about 15 minutes to play, Mertens attempted yet another round-the-corner flick to Osimhen but the Nigerian, on this occasion, wasn’t on the same wavelength and Napoli lost possession.
77th minute: Second goal. Lozano intercepted a poor pass in Parma’s defensive third and Osimhen, alive to the situation, made a run for the through ball.
The pass never came as the Mexico wideman went for goal himself. However, the 21-year-old’s dart to the far post gave Insigne room to run into and the Italy international made the most of this by tapping home the rebound after Sepe inexplicably parried the initial shot back into danger.
Moments after Gattuso’s team went two up, a dangerous cross was flicked on by the young goalscorer and the ball just missed the back post.
80th minute: The forward dragged a shot just wide from an acute angle wide following a pass from Lozano.
84th minute (Fourth key pass): Loudly willed on by Gattuso, the forward drove down the right flank before sending a powerful cross into the area. It missed everyone but fell to Mertens who was stationed just outside the box on the 'D'. His shot was telegraphed by the shot-stopper who guessed the forward will try to curl one into the far-right corner.
Besides Osimhen potentially linking well with teammates—the Belgian, in particular—his runs into the channels and out wide will be a theme this season as he’ll drag centre-backs into positions they wouldn’t necessarily want to wander into.
Also, the effervescent number nine’s penchant for harrying opponents bodes well for Napoli. Their pressing in the opening half contributed to recoveries of possession occasionally high up the pitch, and the West African ought to fit in nicely in this regard—He was 32nd in Ligue 1 for total pressures last season (439) and ranked 22nd for successful pressures (136), a 31 percent success rate.
Much to the annoyance of many Nigerians, Osimhen was left on the bench against Parma on Sunday. However, there were enough promising signs in those 30 minutes to suggest he’ll be playing from the off in due time under Gattuso at Napoli. Up next: Genoa at Stadio San Paolo.