Daniele ‘Decibel’ Bellini receives the signal and bellows out “GON-ZA-LO” while San Paolo’s spirited crowd returns with “HI-GUA-IN” exactly nine times. The chant was first known to the world on September 14 of 2013. It is Round 3 of Serie A action and Gonzalo Higuain has given Napoli the lead over Atalanta and more importantly, scored his first Serie A goal in front of San Paolo’s faithful. A chant—so particular and vibrant that was a staple at weekends at the San Paolo—that unfortunately, has not been heard at all this season. This begs the question. What has happened to Higuain?
Following Napoli’s exit from the Champions League, the Argentinian international assured his side would be back next year. The Partenopei finished the 2013/14 campaign in third place which meant that entry into the competition would come down to surviving a two-leg tie.
An unfit Napoli side eventually fell short and failed an important club objective already in August, before the season even begun. While the squad vowed to focus on the season ahead, the exit is precisely when Higuain’s slump commenced.
An analysis of Pipita’s stats this season reveals a much grimmer story. The striker has yet to record a single league goal after seven rounds of action. The Argentine has started six matches with only one appearance off the bench. By this stage last year, he had already tallied four.
Higuain has fired 18 shots in total with only six directed on goal. Adding to that, Napoli’s schedule has not been too demanding, having already faced some of the smaller sides of Serie A in Chievo, Sassuolo and Palermo. Crunching up the Partenopei’s average amount of possession for the season, the side have maintained roughly 60 percent of the ball.
Some argue his dip in form is down to fitness. After all, Argentina did make it all the way to the World Cup final.
Some question the player’s psychological state. For a player of Higuain’s pedigree—having spent seven years at Real Madrid—to miss out on Europe’s finest club competition dealt a heavy blow to the 26-year-old. The striker is also coming off of a mediocre personal display at the World Cup, with his terrible miss in the final coming to mind. The early elimination at the hands of Athletic Bilbao proved to be the final blow. The player is known to harbour a fiery spirit, but lately it seems as though Higuain has been more preoccupied with arguing with match officials than scoring goals.
However, in no way is Higuain all to blame for Napoli’s disappointing start to the season. The Partenopei did not hit the ground running as they did a year prior. It seems as though the squad as a whole has retrogressed in quality, competitiveness and a winning spirit.
Club captain Marek Hamsik has been in and out of good form so far while hometown hero Lorenzo Insigne has faced the wrath of Napoli’s most ardent supporters in the form of continuous whistles and jeers. The abuse Insigne had taken even prompted the 23-year-old for a desire to switch clubs, but coach Rafael Benitez put an end to the request and helped set the player’s head straight.
Speaking on both Higuain and Hamsik, Benitez stated in a press conference,
It can happen for a striker to score or not. Obviously it’s not normal for them both to be without goals so far, but I have faith in their quality
Napoli’s midfield in particular have performed worse than last season, leaving Higuain with much to do going forward. He’s been left with the challenging task of holding off multiple defenders and waiting for his teammates to join the attack. With the movement of wingers Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens and Insigne needing improvement, Pipita, isolated up front and receiving little help from teammates, cannot lead Napoli all on his own.
Another psychological factor that could be playing with Higuain’s head is a sophomore slump and the daunting task of bearing great responsibility in a passion filled city like Naples.
Great expectations were placed on Higuain right from the start. The striker was brought in to replace the monster that is Edinson Cavani. El Matador won over the city and recorded 104 goals in 138 appearances in his three-year stint with the club.
Higuain’s ethnicity has also granted him no favours. The player has to also live up the task of leading the city to Serie A glory like his compatriot, Diego Maradona, did roughly 27 years ago.
Whatever is affecting Higuain’s play has continued to mentally damage the Partenopei. Serious Scudetto contenders before the season started, Napoli have amassed just 11 points in seven fixtures—already eight points off current leaders Juventus.
If Napoli are to put in a real fight for the coveted third place spot for an entrance into the Champions League, Higuain is going to need to get out of his slump immediately. Sunday at home to Verona would be the perfect start to get on the score sheet. And once he does, the player’s new attitude will also help lift the dark clouds over the city. We will then all enjoy Bellini’s magnificent chant and witness the San Paolo erupt with joy once again.