Arkadiusz Milik is past his injury problems and finally ready for centre stage at Napoli
Throughout his fledgling career, Napoli striker Arkadiusz Milik has become used to being overlooked. As a Polish international in his position, it is hard for him to escape the clutches of Robert Lewandowski’s huge shadow but, at the age of just 23, there is clearly potential for him to become a star in his own right.
Last summer was supposed to be the beginning, but as it turned out, it was just another chapter of continuation. Bringing him to Serie A was smart business on Napoli’s part because, rather than following the same route as before when a big player departed, by replacing with someone of a similar standing, the Partenopei looked to the future. When Gonzalo Higuain, the Argentine tasked with leading the club to their first league title since the glory days of his countryman Diego Maradona in the 1980s, crossed the divide to Juventus for around €90million last summer, Napoli didn’t let the money burn a hole in their pocket as they had before replacing Edinson Cavani three years earlier.
Nobody in Italy has laid as much as a glove on Juve in six years, and if anyone looks like doing so this year, it is AC Milan. The Rossoneri continue to spend big under their new Chinese investors, going as far as luring Leonardo Bonucci, arguably the best defender on the planet right now, from the grasp of the current champions; their intentions could hardly have been stated any clearer.
Despite Maradona’s legacy and the determination to emulate it with stardust by signing Higuain and making Rafa Benitez their manager in 2013, Napoli have always done better as a unit. Individuals come and go, but the ideology and strategy keeps everything together; signing Milik, a player with impressive statistics but the doubts that come without proven quality, was the perfect embodiment of that.
From leaving Gornik Zabrze in his homeland five years ago now, at the tender age of 18, it was clear Milik had something about him. But at that age, it is so easy to struggle, and Bayer Leverkusen and the Bundesliga seemed too much for him. Eventually, he found his feet at Ajax, initially scoring 11 goals in 21 games during a loan spell in the 2014/15 campaign and then 21 in 31 permanently a year later. Maurizio Sarri, another who has risen to the top under the radar, then spent €30 million to bring him to the San Paolo. Tall, agile and born to score goals, he seemed tailor-made to grow into an incredibly passionate and expectant crowd’s new hero.
A year on, though, and the Pole is still waiting to explode after a serious knee injury cut short his good start to life in Italy. Seven goals in nine games had already proven Sarri right and Milik was on his way to stardom, but for a three-month setback. It wasn’t just his absence that has frustrated his development but, like on the international stage, he had to watch on as others carried the team and stole the limelight.
Early on last season, it was clear Sarri wanted Milik to play the role he was bought for by replacing Higuain as the figurehead in attack. Faced with such a long spell without his new main man, the boss used his knack for adaptation and subsequently created what can only be described as a monster. Dries Mertens played centrally but as a false nine, flanked by Lorenzo Insigne, only now getting the credit he deserves, and Jose Callejon with Marek Hamsik, the captain, heartbeat and darling of Napoli, in behind.
Scoring 94 goals, the most in Serie A, 28 of which came from Mertens, they were one of Europe’s most exciting teams to watch. Milik returned in January, but barely made a scratch on the surface of the first team from then, ending his debut season with an extremely unfortunate five goals in just 17 games. After promising so much at Ajax and in the campaign’s infancy, Milik needs to get back to the drawing board ahead of next season in Naples.
Keeping hold of their spine was vital this summer. Speculation unsurprisingly surrounded Mertens, and Chelsea had reportedly flirted with the idea of snaring Insigne after eyeing up centre back Kalidou Koulibaly last summer, but all three remain in place and ready to tackle another huge campaign. Torino’s Nikola Maksimovic has also arrived, shoring up what at times looked a fragile defence, a natural occurrence with the focus being put so much on going forward.
While Juve remain favourites for a seventh consecutive Scudetto, there is an argument that says Napoli are well positioned in the race. Max Allegri’s men are ageing, and who knows the impact losing Bonucci could have; Milan are looking strong on paper, but will need time to bed in their new stars with a transitional phase, as will AS Roma under new sporting director Monchi.
Arkadiusz Milik is used to being the sidekick, but the time is now for him to stand up and be counted at Napoli. The team may have moved on slightly, but as the man signed to fill the void left by Gonzalo Higuain, the Polish international is made to lead from the front. It could be a big year for his life in Italy, but an even bigger one for his career in general.