Having bounced back from the ignominy of relegation in 2018, will the towering frontman now show the same consistency in the top flight?
Going into their final day encounter with relegation-threatened Trapani, Crotone’s Simy Nwankwo still had unfinished business despite the Pythagoreans gaining automatic promotion to Serie A a week earlier.
Locked in a two-way battle with Perugia’s Pietro Iemmello to end top scorer in Serie B, the towering frontman, guaranteed the best-ever league return of his career, wasn’t about to let his one-goal lead slip at the death.
With 20 goals from 36 games before Friday night, the 28-year-old’s keenness to extend his advantage in their final fixture was apparent as he attempted four of his team’s 15 attempts – only Junior Messias from midfield attempted more. Interestingly, he had three fewer efforts in Crotone’s penultimate game in midweek, a 1-0 over Frosinone in their final home game of the season.
Friday night’s 2-0 loss didn't change the final standing of Giovanni Stroppa’s team, who still finished second. Although defeat meant they finished a staggering 18 points behind Filippo Inzaghi’s Benevento, who recorded a 4-2 success over Ascoli.
Fortunately for Simy, Iemmello’s blank in Perugia’s 3-1 loss at Venezia means he won’t be supplanting the Nigerian in the regular season (Perugia face Pescara in the relegation playoffs in mid-August).
Indeed, the gigantic frontman has come a long way from the striker that netted only three times in 21 appearances when Crotone narrowly avoided relegation in 2016/17 but weren’t so lucky the following season as they finished third-bottom with 35 points.
In fairness, their raw statistics when they went down indicated a bit of misfortune: the Pythagoreans scored 40 in 17/18, seven more than they managed the previous year and picked up 35 points, one higher than in 16/17.
The problem was at the back where they let in 66 goals, eight more than they allowed in a dramatic first year in Serie A under Davide Nicola. Only two sides conceded more than the Calabria-based side when they finished in the bottom three – Hellas Verona (78) and Benevento (84) – who didn’t stay in the top flight, either.
As an attacking unit, however, Crotone netted 40 times, more than all but one of the clubs in the bottom half and a staggering 11 higher than 11th-placed Sassuolo who netted 29. Simy scored seven of those in 23 matches, netting double his tally in 16/17, to end joint-top scorer for the side.
He’s become even more prolific in the last two campaigns, albeit in Serie B, hitting the back of the net 14 times last season before scoring his career-best of 20 in a single season.
Despite coming in second-tier football, his haul in the last two years bodes well on the face of it but would the frontman deliver such numbers on his return to Serie A?
A dive into the Pythagoreans’ promotion campaign under Stroppa has seen an interesting shift in approach from their two years in the top flight. In 16/17 under Nicola, Crotone averaged 37.1 percent of possession, unsurprisingly the lowest mean in the division. They fashioned out the lowest big chances (18) and were in the bottom three top-scoring sides having scored 34 times.
The following season, their average possession of 39.5 percent, although slightly higher, remained the lowest in the league. Still, their attacking vibrancy in possession saw them fashion out 36 big chances, double their number in their maiden year, and better than two sides in the competition – Verona and SPAL.
While not the sole reason, it’s no surprise Simy also doubled his tally of three goals in 16/17 to score seven in 17/18.
This term, though, the drastic shift in Crotone’s approach ultimately led to the forward hitting his best return of 20 league goals.
In Stroppa’s first full season in charge, the side from Calabria averaged 60.6 percent possession as they finished second in the table. Their mean wasn’t only the highest in the division, but it was also significantly higher than Benevento’s average of 49.7 percent, which put the champions 12th in the standings for how teams kept the ball throughout the season.
Surprisingly, despite Stroppa’s tendency to dominate the ball, his side created 10 fewer clear-cut chances than Inzaghi’s troops (83 to 93) and were slightly less clinical than the champions.
A bigger worry will be the runners-up’s shoddy defensive record which saw them allow 40 goals in 38 games, a staggering 13 goals more than the league winners who let in just 27. Given their leaky rearguard was a major contributory factor for failing to avoid the drop in 2018, the just-concluded season, despite being under another manager, implied they haven’t learned from mistakes that affected their second season in the top flight.
In an attacking sense, it also remains to be seen whether Stroppa still seeks to dominate games and play on the front foot against teams of better quality or whether he adopts a more pragmatic approach and cede possession to the opposition.
Indeed, the 52-year-old manager’s decision will certainly play a part in Simy prospering or otherwise on his return to the top flight after proving with two prolific campaigns in Serie B that he’s a step above second-tier football.
Despite the threat of not posting as high as this year’s 24 goal contributions next season, fans of the club can draw positives from how he bowed out in 17/18 when he netted six of his seven goals in the final eight fixtures of the campaign.
Having ostensibly improved in the last two seasons, the forward might feel he has unfinished business in the top flight, but the jury is still out on the forward’s ability to dominate against the top sides in the country.
In fairness, how well Crotone adapt to not having as much possession on their return to Serie A will undoubtedly influence Simy’s ability to thrive in the Italian top flight after two seasons away. The goals have flowed in the last 24 months but the forward’s assumed improvement is now set to be put to the test against the nation’s best in the top flight.