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Throughout 2017/18, and in truth for quite some time beforehand, Napoli have been simply sensational to watch. Their slick passing, constant movement and attacking panache makes them easy on the eye, their history with Diego Maradona’s heyday and that simple light blue kit marking them out as a football hipster’s dream.
This term they have combined that aesthetic beauty with a defensive steel and gritty determination, catapulting them from distant also-rans into genuine Serie A title contenders.
Facing them twice in the Champions League group stage, Pep Guardiola was unabashed in his praise. “They are perhaps the best side I've faced in my career,” the Manchester City boss proclaimed to Mediaset Premium following his team’s two victories over the Stadio San Paolo outfit. “I am so proud because I know the side we beat. I am in love with Napoli!”
The credit for that rise to relevancy on such a stage has been handed to many people. Coach Maurizio Sarri’s devotion to his game plan and short passing style deserves immense respect, while the likes of Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and Marek Hamsik have all made stellar contributions. Kalidou Koulibaly has been recognised as one of Europe’s premier defenders as Napoli have tightened up at the other end of the field too.
But, to those watching closely, Elseid Hysaj’s contributions have gone somewhat unheralded.
Sure, the goals of Mertens, the incision of Insigne and the passing of Jorginho have all been essential, but – particularly due to the manner in which Napoli play – the performances of the Albanian full-back deserve special mention.
Hysaj joined Napoli from Empoli in the summer of 2015, just as Sarri made the same switch, the veteran coach understanding the qualities of his young charge and convincing his new side to spend €6million to secure his services.
That ended the defender’s six-year stay in Tuscany, where he had arrived back in 2009 in the most difficult of circumstances. His father Gzim worked illegally in Italy as a bricklayer, eventually taking on a job at the house of football agent Marco Piccioli.
With Hysaj's father constantly barraging his employer to take a closer look at his son, Piccioli eventually relented and, after Fiorentina’s interest waned, the agent secured the 14-year-old Elseid a place Serie B side Empoli’s academy during 2009. Two years later he graduated to the first team and went on to make 109 appearances while helping earn promotion to the top flight, yet still remained somewhat under the radar of the bigger clubs.
Their loss would be Napoli’s gain, as Hysaj quickly established himself as their first-choice right-back. Quick, strong and possessing the stamina to run up and down the pitch for 90-plus minutes, he is every inch the perfect fit for the demands placed on players in that role in the modern era. Happy to feature on either flank, he runs on to passes on the overlap. Few defenders have the pace to keep him under wraps and his crossing is usually crisp, but often comes with scattergun accuracy.
Since the departure of Gonzalo Higuaín and Arkadiusz Milik’s on-going injury issues forced Mertens into the striker’s role, however, Hysaj has not been swinging the ball into the box too often. Instead, he collects it and keeps going, looking for a midfielder or forward to exchange passes with, and his distribution has arguably been the most rapidly improving aspect of his game.
According to WhoScored.com, only 11 players in Serie A have averaged more passes per game than his tally of 64.7, and five of those above him are his current team-mates. Hysaj has not scored a goal, has registered just one assist and created just 15 chances in his 26 appearances thus far, but those numbers are affected massively by the sheer volume of passes in Napoli’s approach play, averaging 732 per game.
That is 153 more than any other team in the division and ranks second to only Manchester City (737) among all teams in Europe’s top five leagues, meaning Hysaj’s contribution cannot be judged in those basic statistical terms.
He certainly needs to work on his shooting, both in terms of accuracy and volume, hitting the target with just two of his seven attempts thus far in 2017/18, but his presence in Napoli's build-up play – even if it comes one or two passes before the final ball – cannot be ignored.
Whenever he is not there to provide an outlet, Napoli look far less dangerous, while also appearing much more vulnerable in defence. And, despite boasting more clean sheets (16) than any other side this season, the Partenopei have conceded goals in all three matches Hysaj has missed.
Averaging 2.5 tackles and 1.3 interceptions per game, he has shown the willingness, intelligence and diligence to get back into position whenever Napoli lose possession. It is important to note that those figures rose to 3.6 and 2.4 respectively in the club’s six Champions League outings, highlighting that Hysaj can work harder should the occasion and the standard of the opposition demand it.
That ability to raise his game bodes well for a player who certainly belongs in any conversation about the continent’s best full-backs, with Albania boss Gianni De Biasi describing him as “very intelligent” and “very balanced.” His agent, Mario Giuffredi, has said that Hysaj is “happy to stay in Naples, but we’ll think about the market in June,” while also noting that his client’s future is intrinsically linked to that of his long-term mentor.
“What happens in the summer will depend a lot on whether or not Sarri stays on the bench,” Giufreddl told Radio CRC last month, and there will certainly be no end of suitors should both men move on.
Hysaj’s current contract expires in 2021 and pays him €1.4million net per year, a figure many of his potential suitors – which include Real Madrid, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United – would have no trouble raising.
Nor would they balk at a reported €50million buyout fee, a fair price given both his quality and the cost of such a player in the current climate. Before that, he would love to lift the Scudetto with Napoli, but Elseid Hysaj is undoubtedly a name to monitor in the coming months.