Dries Mertens has just embarked on the best season of his career. 28 goals in Serie A and 36 in all competitions is truly a remarkable feat for a player that is naturally a super sub winger. His move to striker was a tactical gamble from Sarri but one that has truly paid off as it has unearthed one of Europe’s deadliest forwards. But things could have been a lot different had a key injury not occurred.
26th July 2016: Following a record-breaking season for Napoli, Gonzalo Higuaín has completed a move to arch rivals Juventus for a record £75M. Just when it seemed that Napoli were growing ever closer to seriously challenging Juventus for the Scudetto, the Turin based club take their most prized possession and it was right back to the drawing board for the Partenopei. A man that had won the hearts of the Napoli faithful, his name ringing around the San Paolo with the notorious Decibel Bellini leading the cheers, had suddenly turned into Judas. Whilst in the coming days the Napoli fans had their fair share of laugh mocking their former striker’s physique, there was serious questions waiting to be asked as to how they were going to replace him.
1st August 2016: Those questions were answered exactly a week later as the club announced the signing of Arkadiusz Milik from Ajax for a fee of €35M. A young striker that has the potential to indeed fill the boots of some of his predecessors such as Cavani and the recently departed Pipita. His Napoli career started off superbly as he bagged 7 goals in 9 games, laying down a marker both domestically and in the Champions League and the worries fans initially had were soon a distant memory. Things took a turn for the worst on international duty and left Napoli in a precarious position.
8th October 2016: Whilst on international duty with Poland, Milik sustained a serious anterior cruciate ligament injury against Denmark that would have him out of action for several months. Napoli were now in a position where they had no recognised striker. There was Gabbiadini available however his performances had suggested that he hadn’t adapted to the striker role and he was more comfortable in a number 10 role that Napoli did not play. That was the closest thing to a striker that Sarri had at his disposal but there was another option that was so different to what Napoli were used and would require a slight change of tactics. Dries Mertens as the striker was that answer and ultimately Sarri determined that using Mertens in this role was more beneficial than playing Gabbiadini in the same position.
15th October 2016: In the middle of a tricky October for Napoli, Mertens was first played in the striker role against Roma (a team that they were fighting with all season for second place.) While he didn’t get on the scoresheet and Napoli ultimately lost this game, there were glimpses in the game that suggested he could well flourish in this role.
Following this game, the Belgian had a tough start only contributing to two goals and one assist from October until the start of December which had some people sceptical as to whether Mertens was really the guy to lead the line for Napoli and even speculation of Sarri going into the market for another striker. However, December was the month that Mertens silenced any critics he previously had as he shot into form scoring 9 goals in just 4 games. Shining in back to back games against Cagliari and particularly Torino, the former winger had finally been trusted to produce the goods for the club in a similar way that Cavani and Higuaín were. He continued this fine form into the new year as Napoli really started to establish themselves as the league’s most deadly attack. He continued to show up for each game looking to put his stamp on the game scoring against the likes of Roma, Real Madrid and Juventus during a touch run in March.
April saw the goal scoring heroics die down a bit as he only mustered 3 goals that month but they were enough to keep them in contention for second place and also him in contention to win Italy’s Golden Boot award. May was such a crucial month for Napoli. Chasing Roma for second place that would guarantee passage into next season’s Champions League group stage, they knew they had to win all of their remaining games and hope that Roma slipped up in the process. They say pressure makes diamonds as Mertens once again burst into devastating form to end the season getting 6 goals and 4 assists in the final 4 games of the season but ultimately it was not enough to finish in the top two positions or pip Džeko to the Capocannoniere award.
Mertens displayed attributes that were so unlike any recent successful Napoli striker but still managed to deliver the goods whenever called upon. Being just 5’7, he is not built like past strikers at the club but the qualities he possesses are just as valuable and are key to the reason that he has been so successful this season. His quickness coupled with his low centre of gravity means that he is quite hard to bundle off the ball and you’re unlikely to catch him once he gets going. His close control is another key attribute as he is able to keep the ball close to him and think about his next move and that could be a pass out to one of the wide man or simply taking another small touch before unleashing a strike at goal. This close control is also helpful when in tight situations as he has demonstrated many times over the course of the season with cheeky flicks and nutmegs to keep the attacking sequence flowing. Perhaps what is most surprising about his play is the variety of goals he scores.
For someone who is not naturally a striker, the Belgian scores a lot of different type of goals which highlight the work he has been putting in off the pitch to make this happen. He is typically known for scoring goals very similar to Insigne in which they cut in from the left flank and curl the ball into the corner with their right foot however aside from that Mertens has added a few more types of goals to his games as he anticipates where the ball is going to and makes darting runs towards the penalty spot when the balls are in the wide areas and also despite his heights has successfully attempted to score headed goals.
20th June 2017: In a season that has ultimately ended in disappointment for Napoli, there is a beacon of light as they have unearthed a gem in Dries Mertens. Speculation about his future immediately increased after the season ended with just one year left on his current deal. A host of clubs such as Chelsea, Inter and Manchester United were reportedly interested in securing the services of the Belgian but eventually Mertens committed his future to the Partenopei signing a new deal until 2020. The deal includes a release clause that is similar in valuation to the one Gonzalo Higuaín had but it is only valid in China so Aurelio Di Laurentiis has clearly learned from past mistakes. What a season for Mertens, coming from a winger that was often seen as a super sub into one of Europe’s most lethal striker. It will be very intriguing to see if he can replicate this form next season as Napoli attempt to dislodge Juventus from the top of table once again.