The 2021/22 Serie A season might only be seven rounds of fixtures old, but the pace Napoli are setting at the top of the table already has some talking about their title credentials. Indeed, Luciano Spalletti’s side have caught the eye as the only team in Italy’s top flight to still have a perfect record – seven wins from seven.
A number of key performers have stood out for the San Paolo outfit, but none more so than Victor Osimhen who has four goals in six league appearances so far this season. Every credible title challenger needs a reliable goalscorer to lead the line and Napoli might just have found that figure in the Nigerian.
Osimhen arrived in Italy last summer as a €50m recruit from Lille. That initial fee made the young striker the most expensive Nigerian soccer player of all time, with achievable add-ons potentially making the transfer worth as much as €81.3m. These numbers illustrate just how highly rated he was.
There were, however, teething problems in Osimhen’s first season in Serie A. While the Nigerian reached double figures, his return of 10 league goals in 24 appearances had many questioning whether Napoli had overpaid for his services. Now, though, such doubts have been washed away by a blistering start to the 2021/22 campaign.
The 22-year-old is growing into his role as Napoli’s next great goalscorer. This is a club with a rich history of giving a platform to elite level marksmen – see Diego Maradona, Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuain – and Osimhen looks set to continue the trend. He is getting better with almost every match he plays.
Serie A defences haven’t been able to live with Osimhen this season. He has the pace to burst in behind and leave opposition defenders in his dust, but also the instincts to finish off a chance inside the area when it falls at his feet. While he might not have the same running motion, there are Kylian Mbappe elements to Osimhen’s game.
“Osimhen is phenomenal because he runs alone at five players and gets through,” Cagliari manager and Italian soccer veteran Walter Mazzarri explained after Osimhen had put his team to the sword in a 2-0 win for Napoli. “If you look at genuine scoring opportunities, compared to the number Napoli created lately, I didn’t see that many.
“We intentionally kept a deep defensive line, because if we pushed higher like the other teams, we’d concede four or five like they did with Osimhen able to run into space. Obviously, Napoli had more possession and attacked more, but this was an intentional approach.”
As Mazzarri suggests, Osimhen is the perfect frontman for Spalletti’s system because of the way the Nigerian gives Napoli an out-ball. Without Osimhen, their play would likely be too congested through the centre of the pitch, but his presence gives the likes of Fabian Ruiz and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa an attacking apex to play into, whether that’s into feet or into space.
After coming close to winning the Scudetto in both the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons, Napoli have regressed as a team. There were some signs of recovery last season, as Genarro Gattuso led the club to a fifth place finish, but this is an organisation, and a fanbase, that demands their side at least challenges for major honours.
Spalletti has genuine quality all over the pitch, but it’s the emergence of Osimhen which could unlock Napoli’s true potential. It’s not just that the Nigerian is finding the back of the net with regularity, it’s that he is making others around him better. Napoli are a much more complete side for having Osimhen as their frontman.
Of course, there is a long way to go before Napoli can start thinking about the Scudetto. AC Milan have also enjoyed a strong start to the season and sit just two points behind Spalletti’s side while Inter, Juventus and even Roma also have the quality to target the top spot in Serie A this season.
But Osimhen’s early season form has Napoli fans dreaming. While there is strength in Serie A at this moment in time, there is no single dominant force. This presents Napoli with an opportunity should they maintain their strong start – something that also likely means Osimhen continuing along the trajectory that will one day make him one of the best forwards in the European game.