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Dries Mertens: the evolution of a striker

Dries Mertens will make his 200th appearance for Napoli this weekend. Chris Weir looks over a career that saw him slowly evolve into a striker.

Fortune favours the fit, or so it seems for Arkadiusz Milik. When the 23-year-old signed for Napoli last year he was one of the brightest talents in Europe, scoring a skinful of goals for Ajax in the Eredivisie. After his anterior cruciate ligament ruptured during an international game against Denmark, however, the train derailed. 

Fast forward a season, and the Pole is considering a move to mid-table Chievo to rehabilitate his flagging career, after being restricted to just a handful of Partenopei appearances.

“I won’t exclude it” he admitted when speaking of a transfer during an interview with Polish media. “It would be a way of recovering quickly and getting back to 100 percent fitness sooner”.

Milik’s loss, Mertens’ gain

Cruelly, Milik’s loss has been everybody else’s gain. Maurizio Sarri was unconvinced by the misfiring Manolo Gabbiadini and, devoid of any other reasonable options, he turned in desperation to a winger who had been struggling for a starting place.

Dries Mertens was talented and a ferocious trainer, but Lorenzo Insigne was widely regarded as a better option on the flank. The Belgian was thrown in at centre-forward, more in hope than expectation.

The gamble worked. 34 goals and 11 assists later, Mertens is celebrated as one of the finest strikers in Europe. Direct and pacy, his low centre of gravity has been a nightmare for Italy’s rigid defences. The question is, why did it take so long for him to make the move further forward?

Making a move

Some players are born for the top. When Mertens was released by Anderlecht and Gent in quick succession, it was clear he wasn’t one of them. At 5 foot 5, he was too small to make it at the top level, too flimsy to withstand the challenges of uncompromising Flemish defences.

Mertens knew he wasn’t good enough and departed for the Dutch second division in order to prove his worth. Utrecht took a punt and it wasn’t long before he was winning over the Stadion Galgenwaard with his pace and dribbling, becoming captain of John van den Brom’s side and winning the ‘Golden Bull’ in 2009. 

Then, after coming second to Luis Suárez in the Player of the Year award in 2010, Fred Rutten fought off interest from Ajax to bring Mertens to PSV. It was in Eindhoven where glimpses of his scoring ability emerged. But even when he left for Napoli, a switch to front line was never considered.

“I never thought he could be a striker,” admitted his former coach Marco Heering in an interview with the Guardian’s Nick Ames. “The way he is playing now is unbelievable, and it’s because he is very smart”.

Striking qualities

Intelligence is perhaps to be expected for a man whose mother is a university lecturer but it is his father’s background as a gymnast that may explain his elastic movement. Mertens doesn’t linger on the ball, nor does he need to. Markers are evaded in seconds, finishes curled into bottom or top corners before goalkeepers have time to react. 

Watching him, you are reminded of Michael Owen in his prime, where every movement was laced with deadly intent. In a world of false nines and trequartistas, he is refreshingly simple, an off-the-shoulder throwback.

At 30-years-old, however, the rebirth feels like it’s come too late. Mertens was brilliant again on Wednesday night against Genoa, scoring twice in a 3-2 victory to keep his side’s unbeaten record going. Napoli have now taken a scarcely believable 28 points from 30, and they sit two points ahead of rivals Juventus at the top of the table.

Not that Massimo Allegri will be too worried. When asked about his rivals’ impressive playing style, the Juventus coach has remained nonplussed, pointing instead to the Bianconeris’ relentless title success. Trophies, he shrugs, matter more than the toasts of football’s commentariat.

First among equals

For all his ability, Mertens is dependent on the other members of Napoli’s deadly trident. Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejón are given licence to roam and create under Sarri’s modish 4-3-3, whilst Marek Hamsik and Jorginho remain the doyens of their suffocating passing rhythms. Napoli are dangerous everywhere and Mertens has been the man to profit.

This season he has started more slowly with a paltry goal every 91 minutes. Remarkably, Ciro Immobile, Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi are all ahead of him in the Capocannoniere stakes. None of them, however, have enjoyed the kind of transformation enjoyed by the Belgian. 

With every goal he scores, the coaches at Anderlecht and Gent cower just a little more. The little boy from Leuven continues to prove them wrong. 

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Chris Weir

Chris is a Senior Writer for These Football Times and has appeared on The Guardian and TalkSPORT.

Dries Mertens: the evolution of a striker

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