Tuesday, February 24 th, 2015
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Frustrated, unhappy or out of form? What's happening to Gonzalo Higuaín
El Pipita, who is known worldwide as a goal machine, doesn't find the net in Serie A for more than 180 days. And he doesn't do anything to hide his stress on the pitch. Is there too much pressure in Naples?
by Anthony Pepe
Gonzalo Higuaín is not currently the happiest man in Naples; a lack of goals coupled with rumours of a January departure does not conjure up images of a blossoming relationship. It would be an exaggeration in the extreme to say that Higuaín has not contributed to Napoli’s positive attacking moments this season; he has scored in Europe and he has laid on a few important assists, but when you wear the number nine and play the role he plays, goals are your commodity.

The fact that el Pipita has not scored a Serie A goal for more than 185 days has been much discussed in Naples. Granted 106 of these days were in the off-season, so 79+ days of a competitive calendar. In that time Napoli consolidated third place in Serie A and won the Coppa Italia; Napoli also failed to qualify for the UCL proper and failed to defeat Chievo, Udinese and Palermo.

Some critics in Italy have stated that Higuaín is suffering because Rafa Benitez has asked him to adapt his game by coming deeper for the ball, integrating himself into the build-up of the play while being less of a spearhead of the attack. While this is supported by the assists he has given his teammates it is not the entire story as he has still consistently found himself in excellent goal-scoring positions. Having watched all of these matches, I can say that his general play has been wholly acceptable however he has missed upwards of a dozen easy chances and a dozen more complicated ones.

Simply put, despite the general mediocrity of Napoli’s overall play this season, had Higuaín buried even half of the opportunities crafted for him, Napoli could have won every game so far this season, including the playoff against Bilbao.

While it may sound facile, Higuaín was purchased precisely to deliver goals in great quantities, to be the man who breaks the deadlock in tight games and were he performing effectively Napoli could theoretically be joint top of the league. Is this part of a general malaise or is this specific to light blue shirt of the Vesuviani? Higuaín started most of Argentina’s games at the World Cup, scoring one important goal against Belgium. However, he was frequently criticised by the Argentine press for not adequately performing and who can forget his miss in the early stages of the final against Germany. That was not the strike of a player who is currently in full confidence, it was rushed, hasty and far from clinical.

One can only speculate whether and how much this has affected Higuaín’s confidence, but Gonzalo is a man who seems to let a dark mood overwhelm him, at least as far as his performance on the pitch is concerned. In fact, I have rarely seen a player who allows himself to get so noticeably frustrated on the pitch. My personal theory is that after eight years of having played for the biggest club in Argentina (two years at River Plate) and then the biggest club in the world (six years at Real Madrid), he has still not at all acclimatised to being the star of the team, the most important and expensive player, and the player that everybody counts on.

Secondly, he has clearly gone a lifetime of being at least slightly favoured by the referees at his previous clubs; when he does not get decisions in Italy (which seem to me to be more often than not) he enters a state of anger and bewilderment which he finds hard to shake. A final knock to his mental state is not playing in the Champions League; he clearly feels that a player of his calibre should be starring in the world’s biggest club competition and on that count he is absolutely right. It was surely part of the personal guarantees given to Higuaín by club management when he signed for Napoli and he is likely wondering where his career is currently headed.

Higuaín is only 26 years old and has at least five more years at the top of his game and will surely improve as a player during this time. If Napoli is serious about competing for both the Scudetto and Champions League places then to sell him can only be considered a backwards step, both in footballing and media profile terms.

However, if Napoli’s long term goal is to consolidate their position as one of the top five clubs in Italy without necessarily being a big spender then perhaps there would be some logic to selling him, as long as the price reflects his market value and allows Napoli to recoup 100% of their initial investment. As a fan of both Serie A and Napoli, I would like to Napoli to persevere and convince him to stay and flourish; it would be yet another negative sign if Serie A were to lose one of its top bills. In any case, the issue seems exist solely in Higuaín’s head, if that can be sorted than Napoli can again enjoy the talents of a superstar, if not then the money has to be enough to strengthen the whole team.

A goal this weekend against Inter would be the perfect time to open this year’s account and to give everyone associated with SSC Napoli a smile, including Gonzalo.

Friday, October 17 th, 2014
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