Saturday, July 19 th, 2014
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Analyzing data: did Napoli benefit by replacing Cavani with Higuaín?
Goals, assists, defensive contribution. And the ability to take the team to the next level. That's what emerges from a comparison between the two top players
by Pier Vittorio Mannucci

In July 2013, Napoli traded its best player, striker and leading Serie A goalscorer Edinson Cavani, to Paris Saint-Germain for a fee of about 64.5 million Euros. Napoli’s president De Laurentiis decided to reinvest part of this gain to acquire Cavani’s substitute, and signed top-level striker Gonzalo Higuaín from Real Madrid for about 40 million Euros.

While Napoli’s fans were dismayed by Cavani’s farewell, Higuaín quickly replaced him in their hearts, standing at this point of the season at 12 goals in 23 matches in Serie A, and 4 goals in 5 matches in Champions League. But is the Pipita really at the same level of El Matador? Is he contributing to Napoli’s successes as much as Cavani did?

 

By looking at the mere individual scoring statistics, one would believe that this is not the case: during his first season at Napoli, Cavani scored an average of 0.74 goals per game in Serie A, a huge figure considering that, at the time, he was only 24 and at his first experience in a top-tier team; on the other side, Higuaìn average this year has been so far equal to 0.52, a remarkable achievement, but way far from Cavani’s numbers. Cavani is still performing better even if we consider other competitions, with 0.70 goals per game against Higuaìn’s 0.57. It has to be noted, however, that Higuaín played the Champions League, while Cavani in his first year played in the lower-level Europa League.

EDINSON CAVANI   GONZALO HIGUAÍN
26 Serie A goals 12
35 Serie A appearances 23
0,74 Serie A gol per appearance 0,52
33* Total goals 18**
47 Total appearances 31
0,70 Total goals per appearance  0,58
6 Serie A assists 7
0,17 Serie A assists per appearance 0.30

 

* Serie A + Europa League + Italian Cup
** Serie A + Champions League + Italian Cup
Source: own elaboration on statistics from www.whoscored.com

If one considers Cavani’s following seasons the comparison for Higuaín becomes even worse, with Cavani averaging 0.66 goals per game in 2011/2012 and an astonishing 0.85 goals per game in 2012/2013, his last at Napoli. Cavani outperforms Higuaìn also in terms of contribution to team goals, being responsible for 44% of Napoli’s total goals against Higuaìn’s 26%.

While these numbers seem to suggest that switching Cavani with Higuaín was a bad decision, we need to consider also other parameters in order to make an informed assessment. The importance of a striker, in fact, is not measured just by the number of goals he scores, but also by the way he enhances team performance. Diego Milito, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Lionel Messi are just three examples of superstars whose impact on their teams is not limited to the (incredible) number of goals they score.


Looking at team ranking, we can see that Higuaín’s Napoli outperforms Cavani’s so far: in 2010/11 Napoli had an average of 1.84 points per game, while this year it stands at 2.04. The same thing is true for the average number of team goals per game, with 2010/11 Napoli scoring 1.55 goals per game, and this year’s scoring 2.04.


However, these numbers cannot be correctly interpreted without considering team characteristics in terms of playing system and team composition. During Cavani’s tenure at Napoli, the team was coached by Walter Mazzarri, who privileges a more conservative and defensive playing style, while current Napoli’s coach Rafa Benitez was explicitly selected by president De Laurentiis for the spectacular offensive game of his teams. A team playing for Benitez is probably likely to outperform a team playing for Mazzarri in terms of goals scored, given the different attitudes of the two coaches.


Moreover, Cavani’s Napoli included only two other talented offensive players, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamšík, while Higuaìn can play alongside Josè Callejon (who already scored 9 goals this season) and Dries Mertens (5 goals), as well as Hamšíhimself, plus Lorenzo Insigne and Goran Pandev coming out of the bench.


Nevertheless, there is one statistic where Higuaín clearly outperforms Cavani: the number of assists. This year, the Argentinean striker already served 7 assists, one more than those served by Cavani in his entire first season. This suggests that Higuaín is more involved in the game, looking not only to score himself, but also to help his teammates.


So, who’s the best?
The easy answer would be that both players contribute to their team equally, with Cavani being a better scorer and Higuaín resulting in a better team-player. However, to the unbiased observer it seems clear that Cavani’s impact on his team was much higher than Higuaìn’s.


El Matador
was in fact playing for a lower-quality team and, despite this, was able to take it to the third place in the league in his first season at Napoli, an amazing and unexpected result, displaying an innate leadership ability. On the other side, this year Napoli started the season with high hopes and great expectations that were soon frustrated with an early elimination from the Champions League and an evident inability to be a believable competitor for Juventus.


Altogether, this seems to suggest that both Cavani’s and Higuaín’s contribution to their team performance in terms of successes and goals created was about the same if we take into consideration the different orientation of their coaches and the higher quality of the current Napoli team.


Higuaín struggled so far to be decisive in games against top-tier teams (Juventus and Roma) in Serie A, and failed to do what Cavani did: taking the team to the next level. Moreover, those who watched Napoli playing in 2010/11 were surprised by the amazing quantity of obscure work that Cavani did, running around the entire field and even assuming defensive positions for large parts of the game.


Higuaín is very effective in playing for his team offensively, but does not ensure the same support in the defensive phase: statistics show that Cavani outperforms him in terms of tackles, interceptions and clearances.

 

EDINSON CAVANI   GONZALO HIGUAÍN
1 Tackles per game 0,5
0,5 Interceptions per game 0,1
1,1 Clearances 0,7
 

Napoli’s decision thus seems to have been not so wise. Of course, some caveats apply. First, when Cavani arrived to Naples he had already been playing in Serie A for four years, while Higuaín has just arrived and might need some time to adapt to Italian defenses and way of playing (afterall he did score 107 goals in 190 apps with la camiseta blanca- 0,57 goals/game-, most of which started from the bench). Second, by selling Cavani Napoli was able to acquire not only Higuaín, but also the already mentioned Callejon and Mertens, thus making the team stronger and more talented, at least on paper.

 

Despite these points, however, in the comparison between the two, Cavani stands out as a winner because of his prolificacy, his all-around skills and his ability to bring the team to a higher level, turning the lead of Napoli’s team into pure gold.

Friday, February 14 th, 2014
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