As inarguably great as Gonzalo Higuaín has been for the better part of a decade now, he tends to be overlooked when it comes time to rhapsodize about the great pure strikers in the world. But after the season he just put together at Napoli, scoring 36 goals in 35 matches and thus breaking Serie A’s single-season scoring record, that should no longer be the case.
Certain aspects of Higuaín’s unsung status are understandable. The most unfortunate is his long history of finding new and increasingly embarrassing ways to choke in the worst possible moments. Memories of those high-profile misses for club and country have somewhat overshadowed Higuaín’s real gifts and regular production, as the images of his (admittedly plentiful) lowlights that so easily come to mind blot out the consistent though less immediately memorable moments of excellence in his career.
The other part of why Higuaín goes undervalued has to do with his specific history in the game. While he developed very quickly into an elite goalscorer at Real Madrid in his early 20s, he nevertheless had to share the pitch and the spotlight with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and, at Higuaín’s own position, Karim Benzema. Despite routinely outscoring Benzema, then-Real Madrid manager José Mourinho figured with some justification that the Frenchman’s more expansive, associative game fit better alongside Ronaldo than the burly, penalty box-poaching style of the Argentine. Higuaín was a lock to beat keepers when healthy and given time on the pitch, yet Mourinho’s and Real’s preference for Benzema seemed rational—which still in no way indicted Higuaín’s own talents.
The move from Madrid to Napoli in the summer of 2013 was a win for all parties involved. Real Madrid could cash in on a player who would’ve otherwise would’ve been confined to overqualified backup status, Napoli could replace their recently-departed star forward Edinson Cavani with someone of that same ilk, and Higuaín could finally stand alone as the attacking focal point of a big, ambitious club. During his first two seasons in Naples, Higuaín largely lived up to his billing, averaging a goal every other game. It was this year though that he put together the complete season he’s always been capable of:
Higuaín really does have every skill a goalscorer needs. It’s his movement that’s probably his most critical asset. Many of the attacks you can see him finish above start with him running onto a ball playing him into the box with tons of open space. This isn’t down to bad Serie A defending. (If it were, you’d figure someone else in Italy would’ve been able to find the back of the net more than 19 times this year.) Rather it’s because of the subtle forward-and-back, side-to-side movements that over the course of a match yank and stretch the players along what should be a taut and interconnected defensive line until it has lost all elasticity and the Napoli attack can slip right through with a head-fake one way, a run the other, and a simple pass.
His finishing, too, is world-class. For as much coiled-up energy Higuaín unleashes in celebration of his many goals (and make special note of his antics after scoring the goals during the back half of the video; no doubt feeling how ridiculous the run he’s on has been, he looks like he wants to shout his lungs out of his body while running into the stands and high-fiving each and every Napoli fan in attendance), he displays an absolute serenity in the moments just before, as he’s in the process of shooting. His favorite finish is the hard and low hit toward the keeper’s far post. He guides his shots along carefully measured angles and trajectories rather than thumping them wildly in heat and passion.
Though Higuaín does inflict most of his damage inside the box, he’s far more than a poacher camping out near the penalty spot and waiting for something to happen. You can see him slam in shots from outside the area with both feet, use his deft touch and physical, bullying dribbling style to move through defenses with the ball at his feet, and, as best seen in his final, record-breaking goal, contort his body into position to unload an acrobatic wondergoal you’re more accustomed to seeing a lithe winger score than a big target man:
Higuaín’s 36 goals are the most since Gunnar Nordahl set the Serie A benchmark at 35 in 1950; this is only the second time a striker cobbled together 30 or more strikes in Italy since the 1950s. His final tally this season ended up being more than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo managed, as many in open play as Zlatan Ibrahimović slapped in for the giant in the children’s playpen that is PSG in Ligue 1, and was only second to Luis Suárez’s mark in the big five European leagues. And Higuaín scored all his without the likes of Messi or Neymar or Toni Kroos or Ángel Di María setting him up.
In many ways, even in this era of literally unbelievable stats the two freaks in Spain put up every season, Higuaín’s feat stands apart as especially spectacular. In notoriously goal-stingy and striker-unfriendly Serie A, away from the super teams in Madrid and Barcelona and Paris and Munich, Gonzalo Higuaín looked up at a 66-year-old record and made it his own. This season will cement his place as a Napoli legend, and hopefully will once and for all remind the rest of us that, yes, big misses or not, Higuaín really is one of the very best doing it.