The 3-1 victory against Bologna was a sign that Dries Mertens the goal scorer was back and his performance against Benvento further reminded the football watching public that he is capable of world class finishes (and celebrations). I’ve written about how important I think Mertens is to Sarri’s side for Sempre! before and another of the contributors to this site got me musing upon Dries’ role more deeply.
@ReDiCampania (whose recent article on Allan is a truly top notch piece of football writing) tweeted his irritation at how people can classify our Belgium superstar:
Mertens isn’t a false 9, his play as a CF resembles Aguero rather than Firmino. Leads the line with all sorts of runs in behind defenses and moves wide to create chances & interchange with Insigne.
— aaron (@ReDiCampania) February 2, 2018
I 100% agree with this and feel that the False Nine label serves to diminish the remarkable transformation that Mertens, under Sarri’s tutelage, has undergone. So let’s have a look at proving this and, in order to do so, I’m going to look at where Mertens plays in comparison to other forwards and then explore how his positional sense relates to his period of goal scoring.
Dries v. the Rest of the World
To return to the comparisons that Aaron drew, the first port of call would be to compare where Mertens, Firmino and Aguero spent most of their last game on pitch. Luckily we now have the fantastic positional maps on twitter from @11tegen11 which can help. Anyone interested in using their brain to enjoy football must follow him on twitter!
This illustrates just how much further forward Mertens gets then the other two, albeit further to the left side of the pitch. There are flaws with this as a way of drawing firm conclusions since this is a one game comparison and therefore a tiny sample size but it does give an impression of how much of a traditional (if slightly left leaning) Number Nine Mertens has become.
Now your interest is hopefully piqued, how does Dries compare, positionally, to the original and best False Nine™ – Lionel Messi.
Mertens is ever so slightly the furthest forward of the two, although the diagrams also do illustrate how Messi was also playing very far forward, too. I think we can chalk that one down as inconclusive.
Dries v. Dries
So in answer to the final area of investigation – is there a link between where Mertens positions himself over the course of the game and his goal scoring? Let’s compare games; one during during his recent ‘drought’ against Verona, the Bologna game and his wonder (near) hattrick against Genoa earlier in the season. The Genoa game being, in my opinion, his best performance of 2017/18.
Well this is interesting and perhaps now the analysis needs to move away from the False Nine debate. Despite the Genoa game illustrating a slightly deeper role (possibly explained by being the only away game) – all three have Mertens far up the pitch in a traditional sense. What is more noticeable is that in the (goalless) Verona game Dries is playing more centrally and that the rest of the team is much nearer him. In the Genoa game when he was, for me, clearly the best player on the pitch – there is much greater distance between him and the rest of the team. The team was working off him and using him as the focal point of their play. The same is true, to a slightly lesser extent in the recent match against Bologna.
Perhaps the rest of the Napoli team need to read my articles – the more they realise Dries is the most important player – the more he scores! Also, this information illustrates what a great job Sarri has done with helping Dries re-define himself. He truly is playing in a completely different position and operating as one of the most feared and effective strikers on the planet.
By Frank Sidekick Follow @FrankSidekick