Tactical Guide to Napoli Striker Gonzalo Higuain

Daniel EdwardsFeatured ColumnistSeptember 30, 2013

MILAN, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 22:  Gonzalo Higuain of SSC Napoli celebrates scoring their second goal during the Serie A match between AC Milan and SSC Napoli at San Siro Stadium on September 22, 2013 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Free-scoring Napoli and Argentina star Gonzalo Higuain is one of football's most underrated hit men. While Edinson Cavani and Radamel Falcao take most of the spotlight and were the subject of fierce speculation during the summer transfer window, Pipita by comparison stayed in the shadows as he completed a move to the Italian club. 

That transfer, worth £34.5 million (BBC), may prove to be one of the most astute pieces of business in the entire window. 

Higuain has hit the ground running in San Paolo. Despite a freak accident jumping off a rock in Capri (The Mirror) that provided a bizarre introduction to life in Italy, the striker has formed an instant rapport with his new teammates, scoring three goals in his first six games and adding a further strike in the Champions League. 

Napoli in turn have risen to the top of Serie A, hungry for their first Scudetto triumph since the days of Diego Maradona back in 1990. Part of the reason for their improvement and Higuain's are the tactics used to get the best out of their new Argentine hero. 

Higuain's time in Madrid was far from disappointing. A record of 122 goals in 246 games represents a decent haul over his seven years at the club, more so if one overlooks the first two seasons when, fresh off the plane from Argentina and barely out of his teenage years, Pipita was still learning his trade in Europe. 

Higuain at Real Madrid was crowded out by Ronaldo's penalty area bursts
Higuain at Real Madrid was crowded out by Ronaldo's penalty area bursts

But it is equally true that, under Jose Mourinho especially, his singular talents were misunderstood by coaches, which translated to a reduction in goalscoring capacity. 

As shown in the above graphic, the space and liberty afforded to Cristiano Ronaldo directly affected Higuain's ability to operate as the sole centre-forward in Mourinho's preferred 4-2-3-1 lineup. The Portuguese star's incursions from the right, or the left, gave the striker little room to manoeuvre, also depriving him of the possession necessary to show off his undoubted talents in front of goal. 

The main outlets he had for service came from Angel Di Maria on the other flank, with great ability on the ball but also guilty of making the wrong call on regular occasions, and Mesut Ozil, a wonderfully cultured playmaker who, just like the Argentine up front, found his natural game compromised by Ronaldo's right to roam. 

Higuain feels most comfortable when not constrained to the middle of the pitch. He is a natural athlete more than accustomed to chasing down balls on the wing, beating the full-back and cutting in towards the net. This was a luxury he could not expect to enjoy in the Bernabeu. But elsewhere, he has been allowed more freedom; and with devastating effect. 

With Argentina, the striker has much more liberty to work down the flank, while playing off Messi's impeccable service and Gago's long-range passing. Graphics: Best11.com
With Argentina, the striker has much more liberty to work down the flank, while playing off Messi's impeccable service and Gago's long-range passing. Graphics: Best11.com

After years as the conventional centre-forward in Argentina's lineup, it was Alejandro Sabella who stumbled upon the key to the Albiceleste attack shortly after arriving in 2011. I have written elsewhere on this site about how the former Estudiantes coach got the best out of Lionel Messi, but the change was perhaps just as pronounced in Higuain. 

Using an adventurous 4-3-3 system, and di Maria further back acting almost as a fourth forward, Argentina play a possession-based game that is also built on the art of surprise. On retrieving the ball from deep it is quickly funnelled through to either di Maria or Fernando Gago in the middle. The former specialises in rushing forward with the ball at feet, while the Boca player uses his exquisite passing skills to open up still disorganised defences from deep in the opposition half. 

Higuain, meanwhile, takes up a position on the right-hand side curiously similar to that of Ronaldo at Madrid. There he has the option of staying wide, doubling up on the full-back with the overlapping Pablo Zabaleta. Or, he can move infield, combining with Gago or Messi to more often than not enjoy a decent chance on goal. 

Argentina's destruction of Chile in one of the opening matches of World Cup qualification, complete with a Pipita hat-trick, demonstrates to perfection the versatility of the Napoli man going forward: 

It all sounds so simple. But these are the tactics that have allowed Higuain to harvest nine goals in the CONMEBOL qualifiers, outscored only by Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi. In the two short years since Sabella has taken over, the striker has netted an impressive 13 times for his country, firing him up the all-time scorers list. 

Napoli and Higuain have enjoyed an excellent start to the relationship, with goals and smiles aplenty. But coach Rafa Benitez must not fall into the trap of using Higuain solely as a penalty-area striker.

The dynamic Argentine is much more than just a goalscoring centre-forward, and if Napoli want the best from their new signing they would be advised to treat him as the all-round player that he is.