Napoli’s fluid, easy on the eye, attacking style this season has won them no shortage of admirers.
Maurizio Sarri has Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and Jorginho playing stunning football while Kalidou Koulibaly shuts out opponents at the other end of the field. And each of that quartet has been linked with a variety of clubs this term as Europe’s cash-laden sides prepare to pick apart the Stadio San Paolo outfit.
Last summer saw the foursome make a “Scudetto Pact” and pledge to stay together in order to make a serious push for the Serie A title. Whether they succeed or fail in that aim, it is unlikely that the squad will remain intact this time around.
The Partenopei are astutely run by film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, who operates within strict financial parameters. They enable him to refuse even the highest transfer bids but also mean his players are vastly underpaid by today’s standards.
Every new arrival is delayed by a squabble over image rights – De Laurentiis wants to own them but players are reluctant – and contract extensions drag on for months. Of course, that latter issue affects with many sides but at Napoli it is becoming increasingly problematic, particularly given the increased attention their performances are bringing.
Yet even when terms are agreed warding off interest from top clubs remains a major challenge. Faouzi Ghoulam would be case in point. The 27-year-old only put pen to paper on a new four-and-a-half year deal in December yet he continues to be linked with other clubs.
The issue is exacerbated by the fact he recently appointed Jorge Mendes as his representative, a move which could not only indicate he was ready to move on, but also to where his preferred destination might be.
The Portuguese super agent has close ties to José Mourinho, so it is no surprise various reports – including one this week from Italian newspaper Il Mattino – have linked Ghoulam to Manchester United.
Given the history of deals between the two compatriots, not to mention Mourinho’s constant criticism of current left-back Luke Shaw, it is a rumour that comes with more than a little substance.
United will also undoubtedly be aware that Ghoulam was back in training last week after recovering from a double knee injury that has sidelined him since November. He first ruptured his ACL during a Champions League clash with Manchester City, then unfortunately fractured his kneecap upon nearing a return to full fitness in February.
Prior to that however, he was in sensational form, weighing in with two goals and three assists in his 11 Serie A appearances. Impressively, only three defenders have connected with more crosses per game than his tally of 1.6 per 90, a figure that is even more remarkable when considering Napoli play with the diminutive Martens as their lone striker.
Ghoulam is heavily involved in Napoli’s patient build-up play and his average of 75.4 passes per game ranks fourth among all Serie A players. While he is successful with 89.1 per cent of those passes, it must be noted that all those above him are Napoli team-mates;Jorginho, Koulibaly and Raúl Albiol. It highlights just how well this side keep the ball.
Completing 0.8 take-ons per game, Ghoulam’s creativity has been a joy to watch with Philipp Max of Augsburg (2.8) the only defender in Europe’s top five leagues to provide more scoring opportunities per 90 minutes than his tally of 2.6.
Yet the Algeria international is not merely an offensive presence, he is every inch the modern full-back and takes his defensive duties seriously. Standing 6ft 2ins, he is rarely beaten in the air and has won 22 of the 23 headed duels he has contested this term, he has also averaged 1.5 tackles and 1.5 interceptions per 90 minutes.
He has displayed sound awareness and a solid sense of positioning, ensuring he recovers back to the right spots whenever Napoli lose possession with him upfield.
His performances for Napoli and his national team were recognised back in January when he was named his country’s Player of the Year for 2016, emerging from a shortlist that included Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City.
“I am very happy to win the Algerian Ballon d’Or,” Ghoulam told the BBC at the time, going on to express his delight in receiving the award from a Serie A legend in Paolo Maldini.
“I am also proud to represent defenders because we have a thankless role compared to forwards while it is also an honour for me to receive the trophy from Paolo Maldini who is a reference in my position as a left-back.”
While the iconic Milan star remained loyal to one club for his entire career, it is hard to imagine the Saint-Étienne youth product staying at the San Paolo much longer.
He is paid just €3million per year after tax – a figure which United, or any top Premier League club, could easily double – while France Football has also cited Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain as possible destinations.
Wherever he ends up, Ghoulam, arguably Europe’s most underrated player in his position, will be a high-quality addition and one ready to slot into almost any style of play.