When Gonzalo Higuain signed for Juventus last summer, many in Italian football were concerned that Napoli had effectively kissed goodbye to any hope they had of ending the Old Lady’s dominance in Serie A.
It’s not exactly difficult to see why: the Argentine netted 36 of Napoli’s 80 league goals in the 2015-16 campaign (just as he has been responsible exactly a third of Juve’s this one), and replacing that sort of output is no easy task. Just ask post-Bale Spurs – or, better yet, post-Suarez Liverpool.
Generally, teams go one of two ways. Either they sign a like-for-like replacement, a player of comparable profile capable of matching (if not bettering) their departed talisman’s contribution, or: they radically alter their playing style; in effect, put the spotlight on the support cast.
Napoli players in Serie A so far:
Dries Mertens: 18G, 4A
Marek Hamsik: 10G, 8A
Lorenzo Insigne: 8G, 7A
José Callejón: 8G, 9A
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— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 7, 2017
Napoli tried a little of both; Higuain’s nominal replacement was Arkadiusz Milik, signed for €35m from Ajax, but the Pole – after a promising start – suffered a season-ending injury just a few games into his spell at Stadio San Paolo.
Instead of re-entering the market for another number nine, coach Maurizio Sarri found a new way to spearhead his attack, relying on wingers and number 10s to provide potency in front of goal. The likes of Insigne, Callejon and Hamsik – all of whom have hit double figures – have shone, but none more so than Dries Mertens.
Incredibly, the Belgian is currently on course to beat Higuain in the Serie A scoring ranks, and has netted a total of 31 times in all competitions. (For context, he previously only hit more than 20 goals in one season in his career – while playing for PSV in the notoriously striker-friendly Eredivisie).
You can put it down to the change in position (although that raises plenty of questions about his coaches up until now, all of whom apparently failed to recognise his potential to play through the middle), or you can call it a freak season, where every ball has – somehow – fallen kindly for him.
The fact that the 30-year-old is currently being linked with moves to the likes of West Ham and Watford tells you which way most of the footballing world seems to be leaning, but Mertens deserves much better.
Few players are as good in one-on-one situations than the diminutive forward, who at 5 ft 7 has that winning, Messi-like combination of agility, a low centre of gravity and, yet, somehow power and tenacity at the same time.
This year he has shown he has end product as well, and many of his goals have been sudden snap shots with little to no backlift. The type of finish that is so precious in those cagey, chess-like Champions League games.
The best decision Mertens, having finally found his niche (and, crucially, a manager who understands how to get the best out of him) could make would be to stay put. If he leaves, though, he can do far better than a Premier League relegation slug, and with Bayern, Atletico and Barca looking to add depth to their forward lines, they simply have to send their scouts to Naples.