We live in a footballing epoch of false everything. The game’s progression has given rise to strikers, wingers and advanced playmakers who aren’t really just strikers, wingers and advanced playmakers. At the highest level, purity within an attacking position is increasingly rare as forward players become more intelligent in their movements and more organised in their defensive work. In these circumstances, the more conventional are often underappreciated. Perhaps that is why Gonzalo Higuain, a number nine so true as to be borderline unfashionable, has been disregarded in comparison to his more sophisticated peers.
Last Sunday, Higuain scored his 21st goal in as many Serie A appearances this season as Napoli won 4-2 away to Sampdoria to safeguard their top spot in the league. His strike came on nine minutes when, after receiving the ball from under-pressure opposition midfielder Edgar Barretto, Higuain moved with the sort of urgency, purpose and immediacy that has characterised his last seven months. He had eyes only for the goal, which he found with a forceful shot before celebrating with a passionate cry. It was another powerful reminder of the Argentinian’s potency.
Yet, that game was also reminiscent of other, darker times in Higuain’s career. He spurned a couple of good chances and, when it came to taking the penalty for Napoli’s second, he passed on the responsibility – or opportunity, depending upon which way you look at it – to Lorenzo Insigne, his little left wing compadre. According to his coach, Maurizio Sarri, this went against their pre-match agreement. “We said before the game that Higuain was the penalty taker with Insigne second,” Sarri said. “They must’ve reached an agreement between themselves. Evidently Gonzalo didn’t feel like it.”
Physically powerful Higuain most certainly is, but there remains an underlying psychological fragility that has at times undermined his career. His facial expressions aren’t particularly varied, generally ranging from a look of anger to one of mild annoyance. The tortured appearance is a result of the high personal standards he sets for himself, a bar he does not lower gently for team-mates. But behind the menacing glare lies an emotionally vulnerable player with a not-unrelated past of underwhelming displays at vital junctures.
Higuain seemed to be the archetypal Argentinian striker; robust yet technically assured, when he first arrived on European football’s shores with Real Madrid, but he got off to an inauspicious beginning in Spain, scoring just twice in his first year of La Liga football. Gradually he matured and scored a very respectable tally, yet there was a short-termism about his time with the club. He wasn’t a big name, and those without big names usually have to work harder to justify their presence among the Galacticos. Karim Benzema’s £24.5 million arrival at the Bernabeu in 2009 precipitated an erosion of Higuain’s status, he was evidently not as flashy as the Frenchman, nor was he as highly regarded.
Higuain’s subordination to Benzema at Real Madrid was not dissimilar to his treatment at international level, where he has generally been viewed as a useful talent, albeit one that can get in the way of icons. In fairness to him, it is hard to shine when you have Lionel Messi standing adjacent to you, and Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez vying for your place. As such, when evaluating Higuain’s pre-Napoli days, it is worth imagining the frustration he must have felt, at being so obviously talented yet so unable to derive the correct value from that talent. There was always somebody better.
His first two years in Naples were a showcase of that frustration. His every performance resembled a release of pent-up hostility. After years of being second best, he was now the star. But with that tag came new responsibility. Napoli signed him for €38 million, a club record fee. He was given a contract of €5.5 million per year. People were discussing his potential impact in the same sentences as they remembered the effect his legendary compatriot Diego Maradona had on the club in the 1980s. It was an uphill task merely to live up to his billing, never mind exceed it, and the pressure began to spill out on to the pitch.
Higuain became notorious for fluffing his lines at important moments. In the 2014 World Cup final he was presented with a glorious opportunity to give Argentina the lead. He screwed the ball harmlessly wide and Argentina lost in extra time to Germany. On the final day of last season, he had scored two goals to pull Napoli level with Lazio. When Napoli won a penalty, he stepped up. Scoring would have given him his hat-trick while simultaneously putting his team in the driving seat for a Champions League place. He ballooned the ball over the bar. Napoli lost 4-2 and had to content themselves with the Europa League. Last summer, he missed from close range what would have been an injury time winner in the Copa America final, before blazing another spot-kick over as Argentina lost on penalties to Chile.
Such a harrowing sequence of big misses would have been enough to derail the most promising of careers, but Higuain finally found good fortune last summer. When Rafa Benitez – the man who had convinced him to move to Italy – left for Real Madrid, it was believed that Higuain would follow him out the door. But before he walked out, in stepped coach Sarri, a man who spent many years in the world of finance before turning his hand to training and organising football players.
Sarri, with just one season of Serie A experience prior to his appointment, has unlocked the Higuain that had previously always threatened but never fully materialised. He has been straightforward with his attacking talisman, encouraging him not through coddling, but with honest assessment in the form of remarks such as: “If Higuain doesn’t win the Ballon D’Or, he’s a dickhead.”
Under his new coach’s auspices, Higuain has reached a new level. In his first season in Italy he scored 17 goals; in his second he went one better. Having just barely moved beyond the halfway mark of this term, ‘Pipita’ has already blitzed both of those tallies. He is on course for the most productive season of his career. His anger continues to simmer throughout his play, but he is less of a chore to play alongside. He is finally channelling his emotion, inflicting it upon opposition defences. In many games he has been simply irrepressible.
The motivation to erase bade memories and a new diet of less red meat, more fish and honey instead of sugar have been hinted at as reasons behind his improved form, but it’s impossible to ignore Sarri’s tactical influence. After a poor start in which Napoli didn’t win any of their opening three games with Higuain failing to score in two of those fixtures, Sarri disbanded his favoured 4-3-1-2, which he had used to great success at Empoli, and brought in a 4-3-3. The new system entailed Higuain atop it as the lone striker, with two wide players – Insigne and Jose Callejon – on either side of him. Since the switch, Napoli have played some of the most beautiful football on the continent and Higuain has scored at an unprecedented rate.
He has found the net in 13 of the proceeding 18 league matches since Sarri’s tactical modification, hitting six braces along the way. He has formed a devastating triumvirate with Insigne and Marek Hamsik, Napoli’s own left-sided Bermuda Triangle in which opponents are consistently lost without trace. Insigne cuts in, Hamsik pushes forward, Higuain – conventionally, with his back to goal – combines with both, and the results are stunning. That link-up play isn’t the most prominent aspect of his performances, however. He is moving faster and holding the ball up with a renewed vigour. In short, he is playing the role of the true number nine to near perfection.
Higuain lacks the bells and whistles that many of his contemporaries possess. He doesn’t have the footwork of Benzema and Sergio Aguero, or the refined grace of Robert Lewandowski and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Nor is he quite as quick or deft in his movement as Luis Suarez and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Essentially, he is nothing more or less than a classically trained number nine. It just so happens that he is an exceptionally efficient one.
In Higuain’s concoction of brutish physicality, cold-hearted finishing and relentless work ethic, Sarri sees something that few else do. “He is becoming what I always thought he should be, in other words the best striker in Europe and perhaps the world,” he said, before adding, “I wouldn’t even exchange him with…Lewandowski.” Biased words, you might think, but they are not without evidence to back them up.
Of all the strikers mentioned, only Ibrahimovic and Benzema have scored more goals, contributed more successful passes and created more chances per 90 minutes of action than Higuain. However, rather intriguingly, Higuain has completed far more dribbles than those two. In fact, he has gone beyond his marker more than any other striker aforementioned, with only Lewandowski and Aguero coming anywhere near close to him in this area. Not only is that a telling portrait of the lone furrow that Higuain has at times had to plough within Sarri’s system; it also offers a glimpse of the player’s refreshed mentality. More confident and determined than ever, he is bearing the burden of pressure easier now than before.
For further context, it’s worth considering that Higuain is reaching those numbers without a Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Thomas Muller alongside him. And, while Ibrahimovic is the most impressive striker statistically, it’s important to note that he is achieving his numbers within an expensively-assembled Paris St Germain side that faces little strenuous competition in Ligue 1 at present. By contrast, Higuain is cutting through Serie A defences that, while not as stout as they were a few decades ago, are still some of the most disciplined and well-drilled that you are likely to see in Europe. Additionally, he has played more minutes than any of his illustrious striking rivals, appearing in every single one of Napoli’s league fixtures. His consistency across that period has been remarkable.
Right on cue, football’s wealthiest are beginning to sit up and take notice. Bayern Munich have been the most outspoken, with club CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge telling reporters, “Higuain is a fantastic player, we at Bayern like him.” Those words correlate conveniently with those of Carlo Ancelotti, who is set to take up the manager’s post at Bayern come the end of Pep Guardiola’s reign. The wily Italian fuelled speculation by saying: “Who would I take to my next club? Among the foreigners in Serie A I’d choose Higuain.” Recently there have also been rumours of PSG’s interest with Ibrahimovic’s contract set to expire in the summer. Even Inter’s Roberto Mancini joined the chorus of admiration, jokily telling La Stampa, “I would be more than happy to take Higuain on loan.”
The clamour signifies a growing acceptance that Higuain has definitively made the leap from sub-elite to truly world class. He is no longer the other man or the choker. He’s in the spotlight, and he’s revelling. Thanks to a perfect symbiosis of his individual characteristics and Sarri’s tactics, he is driving Napoli forward in their charge to win a first Scudetto since 1990. With or without the league title, however, Higuain’s form this season has deservedly thrown him to the forefront of the conversation regarding the world’s finest number nines. Functional and unashamedly orthodox, his progression is a testament to the conventional.