The outspoken Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis made a salient point recently when he suggested Serie A is arguably Europe’s most competitive top-flight.
No fewer than seven teams are capable of challenging for the championship, the movie producer suggested, when arguing his case to reduce the number of clubs from 20 to 16 feeling it would make the Italian top division even more competitive.
Chances of that happening anytime soon is remote, what’s not uncertain though is how things have started to shape, in truth carrying on from last season.
Even if we’re six games into the season, it’s clear who is going to be contesting for the scudetto, in other words: the usual suspects. At the moment six teams – Napoli, Juventus, Inter Milan, Lazio, Roma and AC Milan – are separated by just six points.
It’s refreshing to see both Milan teams, who have endured hardships in recent times; but the presence of Roma, Juventus and Napoli doesn’t come as a surprise considering their performances across the last three seasons.
Juventus, the last six winners, remain the one’s to beat. Early days, but there’s a feeling they won’t have it all their own way, and with that being said here are the numbers behind this season’s burgeoning title race.
A historic start
Juventus are without question first among equals. Their domination of their championship has no equal across Europe’s top five leagues in recent years. So, it’s no shock to see the Bianconeri win their opening six matches.
6 – For the first time in the Serie A history, two sides – Juventus and Napoli – have both won each of the opening 6 fixtures. Together.
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) September 23, 2017
Onus is on the other, someone to push Massimiliano Allegri’s men, or even usurp them. Napoli, who finished last season, have unquestionably accepted the challenge and matched their rivals from the north stride for stride.
As a consequence; for the first time in Serie A history, two sides are 100% after their opening six fixtures.
It will be interesting to see when Juve visit Stadio San Paolo on game week 15 where both sides are.
Masters of the set piece
Another team harbouring ambitions of being champions of Italy again is seven-time European Cup winners AC Milan.
As mentioned they’ve not had the best of times in recent years, going through a number of managers and even more players, but under Vincenzo Montella there’s hope even if the Rossoneri have already suffered two league defeats to date.
Ahead of the campaign Montella spoke of “creating something big”, in that same conversation he stressed the importance of set-pieces, it’s something he became renowned for whilst serving as Fiorentina manager.
His players haven’t disappointed him. Milan have already registered six set piece goals – 60% of their overall total – which is only bested by Monaco (10) and Real Sociedad (7) across the top five leagues of Europe.
In the presence of a maestro
Once upon a time Serie A was must see television.
Those days are slowly returning, partly helped by increased competition, though it’s hard to imagine the league boasting the number of genuine superstars as it did between the mid 80s to late 90s.
But there are, of course, stars littered everywhere, and none is shining more brightly than Paulo Dybala, the Argentine playmaker gracing Juve’s fabled number 10 jersey.
He currently leads the race for this season’s Capocannoniere having bagged 10 goals across the Old Lady’s opening six matches. A feat that has not been managed across the last 25 Serie A seasons.
Since joining from Palermo his previous two seasons have seen him end with 19 and 11 league goals respectively. The way he’s started it won’t be long before he eclipses his personal best managed across 34 matches in 2015/16.
Capocannoniere race shaping up nicely
Dybala’s efforts sees him two ahead of Lazio marksman Ciro Immobile with Edin Dzeko, Mauro Icardi and Dries Mertens a further two back.
Each, unsurprisingly, represents a challenge. Dzeko is now Roma’s number nine whilst Icardi has fast become Inter’s jewel in the crown (this after falling out with their ardent fanbase).
As for Mertens, not long ago he was cutting inside from the left, but an injury to Arkadiusz Milik – signed as Gonzalo Higuaín’s replacement – saw Maurizio Sarri convert him into a false nine and he’s not looked back since.
Last season’s race went down to the wire expect the same again.
Defence, defence, defence
“No doubt offence sells the tickets, but defence wins championships,” as famed basketball coach Dave Thorson once said.
Inter Milan, who last tasted Serie A glory with Jose Mourinho at the helm in 2010, are heeding by these words under Luciano Spalletti.
His side not only boasts the meanest defence in the Italian top division, conceding just twice across six matches (or once every 270 minutes), but only Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund (one goal shipped in) best them across Europe’s big five leagues.
Spalletti, who left Roma to succeed Stefano Pioli in the summer, is their 10th coach in the post-Mourinho period.
An idealistic manager, whom earned grand platitudes whilst managing the Giallorossi in first spell there between 2005 and 2009, he already has a vision of how he wants Inter to play under him, and that’s one built on a impregnable defence.
More holes than Swiss cheese
By contrast Inter’s fierce city rivals Milan have seen their goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma pick the ball out eight times across six matches (1.3 per game).
It should be a concern for Montella who knows a leaky defence isn’t the platform from which to build a championship-winning team.
The same could be said for Lazio, last champions in 2000, who have also conceded eight goals in the same amount of games.
To put that into some context, that’s more than 11th place Bologna, and same as Cagliari who sit two points above the bottom three.
Attack, attack, attack
On the flip side Napoli under Maurizio Sarri are Europe’s top scorers.
After their opening six matches, they’ve posted 21 goals, the same amount as Monaco across Europe’s top five leagues.
Sarri, who wants his side playing on the front foot, can be pleased with the number of different scorers.
To date, 10 of those at his disposal have found the back of the net, with Dries Mertens leading the way.
The 30-year-old Belgian forward has bagged six goals (28.6% of their overall total) with José Callejón two behind.
Striking from distance
When it comes to adopting a shot on sight policy there’s no coach more encouraging than Allegri.
No player has scored more free-kicks (6) in Serie A since 2015/16 than Paulo Dybala.
What a way to complete his hat-trick. 🎯 pic.twitter.com/ipHHrnICP4
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 17, 2017
So far this season, across Europe’s top five leagues, only Lyon (six) and PSG (five) have scored more from outside the area than his men (four).
Responsible for three of those strikes is the aforementioned Dybala, fast becoming a free-kick master, with Miralem Pjanić claiming the other.
Napoli, though, are one behind with Faouzi Ghoulam, Mertens and Piotr Zielinski all finding the net from distance.
Speaking of Napoli they can boast the best shot accuracy (67%) of any club in Europe’s top five leagues.
And this from behind six teams – Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund – in terms of shots on goal.
Napoli, across their opening six outings, have unleashed 114 shots on their opponents with Real Madrid – boasting a 46% shot accuracy – leading the way after registering 122 strikes.
It’s this efficiency, if you will, that most pleases Sarri, who is not one to tolerate wastefulness.
They’re also among Europe’s pass masters with only Paris Saint-Germain (4,644) attempting more passes than Napoli (4,159) across the big five leagues.
Seeing these numbers you begin to understand Sarri’s philosophy. From the onset it was clear that his coaching philosophy of one-touch and combination football is heavily based on possession and positional interchange.
In essence Sarri doesn’t believe in adapting to the opponent but rather playing his own game. The aim of each game is to dominate through possession; circulation football is used as a means to not only create goalscoring opportunities but also as a defensive weapon. If you have the ball the opposition can’t harm you.
No team boasts a higher average in Serie A when it comes to possession (59%). To some keeping the ball is frowned upon. However, there’s something important which is often overlooked: keeping possession conserves energy. Sarri understands this and believes over the course of a gruelling season it will pay dividends.
When you dominate the ball, it’s natural to assume a plethora of goalscoring opportunities will be created, and Napoli haven’t disappointed.
Across the Italian championship Napoli are the most creative team in the league (89) followed by AC Milan (74).
Lorenzo Insigne is their commander-in-chief having being responsible for 19 of those. On his tail are Faouzi Ghoulam (16) and José Callejón (12) the only players in double figures.
It’s now 27 years since a Diego Maradona-led Napoli were last Italian champions, they’ve seen fallen on hard times before resurrected, with the brand of football Sarri has got them playing this could be their best chance to bring the scudetto back to Campania.