CASTEL VOLTURNO, Italy (AP) — Throughout his entire soccer career, from youth levels on up, Stanislav Lobotka had never seen what he now sees at Napoli nearly every match.
Eight Napoli players — everyone but the goalkeeper and the two center backs — line up at the halfway line at kickoffs to start the game or the second half.
“We want (to) play forward to get (inside) the opponent’s half maybe to score or to create corners or something to show that we want to win the game. And it doesn’t matter who we play against,” Lobotka said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
In Italy, where conservative tactics and “catenaccio” (lockdown defense) had been the tradition for decades, coach Luciano Spalletti’s idea of attacking so decisively from the first touch was revolutionary — even for a team that had Diego Maradona when it won it’s only two league titles more than three decades ago.
The strategy works, though, and Napoli has been a high-scoring juggernaut for most of the season both in Serie A and the Champions League, amassing nearly 100 goals in all competitions to become the runaway leader in Italy and a serious threat in Europe.
Expect to see the eight-man attack ready to go when Napoli visits domestic rival AC Milan in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals at the San Siro on Wednesday — maybe even from both sides, because Milan copied Napoli and used the same tactic recently.
As for Napoli, expect the ball to be tapped toward the feet of Lobotka inside the center circle at kickoff.
That’s because, while dribbling wizard Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and scoring wonder Victor Osimhen have been garnering most of the headlines for Napoli this season, the 5-foot-7 (1.70-meter) Lobotka has been the motor that makes Napoli tick with his exceptional passing skills and field vision.
Inspired by his idols Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta and Luka Modrić, Lobotka has completed 94.1% of his passes in Serie A this season — the highest percentage of any midfielder in Europe’s top five leagues and third overall behind only Paris Saint-Germain defenders Marquinhos (95.0%) and Sergio Ramos (94.6%).
What’s more is that Lobotka has been the most precise at passes of 30 yards or more among anyone with 100 or more attempts, with the Slovakia international completing 88.2% in that category — no doubt helped by the abilities of Kvaratskhelia and Osimhen to find open space up front.
So what has changed for a player who struggled for playing time under previous Napoli coach Gennaro Gattuso? Two big details: the arrival of Spalletti, who had previously tried to bring Lobotka to Inter Milan, and improved fitness after two surgeries for tonsillitis.
“The most important (thing) is the confidence that you feel the coach trusts you,” Lobotka said. “When something (goes) wrong, (Spalletti) will always help you (regain) confidence. … When I feel these feelings, I can show my quality.”
Lobotka added that since Spalletti wears soccer boots on the touchline for every game, sometimes it feels like “he wants to come in to help us.”
Like many teammates, Lobotka felt freer to step up after Napoli made the then-unpopular move of letting club record scorer Dries Mertens, captain Lorenzo Insigne and defensive stalwart Kalidou Koulibaly leave after last season.
The departures resulted in protests from Napoli supporters.
“Everybody said, ‘OK, this will be a hard season,’” Lobotka recalled. “And this for us was like freedom. We can chill and we (have nothing to lose) and we can do what we want.”
CAN’T CATCH KVARA
The protests only increased when Kvaratskhelia was brought in to replace fan favorite Insigne on the left wing.
Lobotka acknowledged that he had never heard of the player from Georgia now known simply as “Kvara.”
“It was not (just) me but a lot of people, because I think not many people see the Russian league or the Georgian (league) when he played,” Lobotka said. “Now I think he’s one of the three, four best wingers in the world. … When you get him the space to play one against one you don’t have a chance to catch him.”
KICK IT TO OSIMHEN
Osimhen leads Serie A with 21 goals in 24 matches.
Lobotka said Napoli likes it when opponents mark Osimhen with two players because it opens up space for the rest of the squad.
“And even if we are pressed we can just kick it (with a) long ball (and) he will run there and he can get the ball,” Lobotka said. “Also, when you cross, we know that Victor will find (the) ball.
“For me, he’s among the top four typical No. 9s in the world with (Karim) Benzema, (Erling) Haaland and (Robert) Lewandowski.”
Unlike other big cities in Italy, Naples has only one major soccer team and the fan support for Napoli is felt on every street and alleyway.
Lobotka, who developed with Ajax’s junior squad and then played for Danish club Nordsjaelland and Spanish team Celta Vigo before transferring to Italy, had never experienced anything like Napoli.
“It’s something special,” Lobotka said. “They really love football in the city. … I will die on the pitch just to get these fans happy.”
After most home games, Lobotka treats himself to that most Neapolitan of foods: a pizza margherita.
“I always (have) one after the game,” he said.
The influence of Maradona, who led Napoli to the 1987 and 1990 Serie A titles, remains a big motivating factor for the current squad.
The team’s stadium was renamed for Maradona when he died three years ago.
Lobotka said Maradona is still “part of the city.”
“You can go everywhere and feel it,” Lobotka said, pointing a finger to the heavens as he added that Maradona will be “happy (up) there” about what Napoli achieves this season.
While Lobotka recently extended his contract with Napoli through 2026-27, with an option for another season, he holds no illusions about keeping the entire team together.
“To be honest, it will be difficult because there are a lot of players and there are a few teams who everybody dreams to play for,” he said. “We know a lot of it (is) about the money. So if somebody comes and says, ‘OK, for Osimhen 120 million,’ it’s difficult to say, ‘No, we want to keep him here.’
“But maybe one day we’ll be like that.”
NOT CELEBRATING YET
As Lobotka spoke at Napoli’s training center along the coast north of Naples, nearby in downtown Castel Volturno there were blue banners with a “3” printed on them to celebrate the team’s anticipated third Serie A title already hanging over the streets.
But Lobotka wasn’t quite ready to discuss what the celebrations might be like for the title.
“It should be incredible, but I still don’t think that way,” he said. “It’s still a lot of points (to clinch) and if we start to think about this celebration, it’s not good for us.”
Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf
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