There are only four clubs from Europe's Big Five Leagues who play in the Champions League and are undefeated both domestically and in Europe this season. Three of them are legitimate super clubs: Manchester City, winners of four of the past five Premier Leagues, Paris Saint-Germain, also winners of four of the last five domestic titles and Real Madrid, the reigning European and LaLiga champions.
The fourth is Napoli, who have only three Italian Cup trophies to show for the past 30 years ... yet here they are. They're top of Serie A and perfect in their Champions League group (three wins from three games, the latest being a 6-1 away hammering of Ajax), with 31 goals scored in 11 games across the two competitions.
Here's the incredible part: They are doing this after a summer in which they cut their wage bill by 30% and made a €13 million ($12.8m) profit in the transfer window. A summer that saw them say goodbye to exactly the sort of players that, according to conventional wisdom, are the key to success in sports. You know, the type that ex-pros turned pundits love to talk about: talented, experienced leaders who have a real connection to the club and the fan base.
Lorenzo Insigne, the Napoli-born, bred and buttered forward that came through the youth ranks and had been a fixture for the past 10 years, was allowed to leave via free agency. Kalidou Koulibaly, the club's spiritual leader, defensive mainstay and one of the best in the world at his position, joined Chelsea after eight seasons. The hugely popular Dries Mertens -- the club's all-time leading scorer in Serie A -- was also allowed to move on, joining Galatasaray, while Fabian Ruiz, the elegant midfield playmaker, went to PSG.
In all of the above cases, money was a factor. The first three were the wrong side of 30 years old while Ruiz was 26, but had just one year left on his contract (like Koulibaly) and the club felt they couldn't afford to lock him in to a longer contract. And so, they took it on the chin.
When clubs do this, you think "reset button" and "rebuilding season." They finished third last year, after all, and it was hard to see them making the Champions League again -- especially with a sector of the often-agitated fan base angry with president Aurelio De Laurentiis for effectively gutting their team in an effort to save money. And even more so when, in early September, their most gifted remaining player, Victor Osimhen, went down injured (he hasn't returned to action yet).
Instead, their results thus far have shown they are masters of the "reload."
For clubs outside the top dozen or so -- basically, the deep-pocketed one-percenters like Real Madrid, PSG or Manchester City -- reloading is pretty much the Holy Grail. It's different from rebuilding because when you rebuild, you accept you won't be as competitive in the short-term because you are going in a new direction, usually with a new manager and/or younger players.
Reloading, however, is predicated on the fact that you need to replace the guys you lost without suffering in terms of results. Why? Because if your results deteriorate, so does -- in many cases -- your revenue. And then you get stuck in a vicious cycle.
Reloading was what Napoli's opponent Tuesday night were hoping to do, too. In the summer, Ajax lost Antony and Lisandro Martinez to Manchester United, Sebastian Haller to Borussia Dortmund, Ryan Gravenberch and Noussair Mazraoui to Bayern Munich, Perr Schuurs to Torino and Nicolas Tagliafico to Lyon (among players who made at least 22 league appearances). They spent more than €100m on replacements to stay competitive, win the Dutch league and try to make some inroads in Europe. (They're second in the Eredivisie, but after Tuesday's result they face an uphill task in reaching the Champions League knockout stage, which in turn would mean less revenue next season and less of a chance to hang on to their remaining prized players like Jurrien Timber and Mohamed Kudus.)
This is the reality facing Europe's upper middle class and, to some degree, teams just outside the Big Six in England. In Napoli's case, however, their approach has been hugely effective and they've hit on just about every summer signing thus far.
Part of the strategy was to move quickly and decisively for targets who were not quite off the radar, but were on its margins, at other clubs and who appeared to have limited downside. At the back, they acquired Min-Jae Kim from Fenerbahce, a 26-year-old South Korea international who spent three seasons in China before his campaign in Turkey last season. Mathias Olivera, a Uruguay international, arrived battle-hardened from LaLiga strugglers Getafe. Norwegian defender Leo Ostigard arrived from Brighton after doing very well during a six-month loan at Genoa and proving himself in Serie A.
In midfield, they took a calculated gamble taking Tanguy Ndombele on loan from Tottenham. A one-time phenom, Ndombele has basically been sub-par the last two seasons (including during a loan spell back home at Lyon), but the logic is simple: If he gets his act together, you have a standout player. If he doesn't, he's not a projected starter anyway and you send him back to his parent club.
Striker Giovanni Simeone, best known to some for being Diego's son and having a tattoo of the Champions League, was another low-risk loan. He scored a career high 17 goals last season for Verona, but the knock against him is that he's streaky and, at 27, isn't going to improve. Again, for one season, he's a useful alternative to have. (Oh, and he's already scored against both Ajax and Liverpool in the Champions League.)
Then there's Giacomo Raspadori, signed from Sassuolo on loan with an obligation to buy. (It's basically an accounting trick: He'll cost Napoli between €30m and €35m in transfer fees depending on performance.) Raspadori is a 22-year-old forward who is a part of the Italy squad but, possibly because he was at unglamorous Sassuolo, few big clubs were beating a path to his door. His age made him a risk worth taking.
Finally, they acquired the player who possibly has had the greatest impact on Serie A this season: Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.
The 21-year-old Georgian wunderkind is a human highlight reel who has been on scouting radars for the past three years. A combination of factors (including the war in Ukraine) made it possible for Napoli to sign him at a bargain fee of €10m. He already has six goals, three assists and more #Kvaradona mentions that you can shake a stick at (which matters in this town).
Last season's holdovers are also performing at a high level. Whatever leadership void was left by the departures of Insigne, Koulibaly and Mertens is being filled by guys like Osimhen (before his injury), Piotr Zielinski and Giovanni Di Lorenzo. Goalkeeper Alex Meret, heavily criticised by some local media and supporters for lacking personality, has shown he belongs.
And let's not forget coach Luciano Spalletti. He may be an eccentric, but he has gotten the mood of the fans, the city and the squad just right, and he's getting his young, high-energy team to play like one, whereas last year he catered a little more to the veterans with a more patient approach.
There's not necessarily a broader blueprint to follow here. What is working for them may not work for other clubs; maybe they have better decision-making personnel, or maybe they just got lucky. But it is remarkable that they're in this position given how difficult it is to reload wholesale on the fly. And maybe their experience can encourage other clubs to be bold and make tough decisions of their own, too.