Tactical Analysis: Dries Mertens – A Matter of Height?

Another disappointing performance against Fiorentina has called for some fans on social media to call for Mertens to be sold or dropped. This is part of a growing narrative that has been at the centre of the whirlwind few weeks amongst us Partenopei about whether Sarri should opt for Milik or Mertens or both? I’ve really enjoyed writing about Dries Mertens this season his role has split people and the stats can help bust some myths – I looked at his ‘false nine’ role a few months back and now, I’d like to have a look at another Mertens myth today to help us with our thinking about Mertens’ future at the club.

Looking at Mertens and Milik side-by-side, you’d think that Sarri should think ahead and pick Milik against the larger, more physical centre backs. This came up during a recent Sempre! podcast that I was a part of and it got my brain going. I decided to look at every league game that Dries played this season, log whether he scored or not and see the average height of the centre back pairing to see if there is a statistical support to this anecdotal evidence. Is Mertens too limited against physical defences? Has he been found out? Disclaimer: before looking at the stats, I totally thought that tall defenders = bad for Dries but… I’m not so sure this is true now.

Let’s first look at how Dries performed against the tallest five centre back pairings:-

Top 5 Height

Match Week Scored? Av CB Height Team Notes

27

Yes

192.0

Roma

6

No

191.3

SPAL

25

No

191.3

SPAL

35

No

191.0

Fiorentina

22

Yes*

191.0

Bologna MotM

Stats from whoscored.com

Straight up there is something to raise eyebrows. Roma’s giant back line of Fazio and Manolas failed to stop our vertically challenged Belgian superstar and, moreover, one of his best performances of the season came against the neck craning pairing of Maio and Helander of Bologna. He did, however struggle both times against SPAL’s man mountain partnership of Felipe, Vicari and Salamon (be nice to people in Ferrara, folks) and as well as during this weekend’s heart breakingly disappointing showing against Fiorentina’s imposing centre back partnership.

Looking at the bottom end of the spectrum is equally revealing. You would imagine that against smaller partnerships our pint size former PSV hitman would excel, right?

Wrong.

Bottom 5 Height

Match Week Scored? Av CB Height Team Notes

5

Yes

184.3

Lazio

1

No (DNS)

183.5

Verona

32

No

183.5

Milan

20

No

182.5

Verona

17

No

181.5

Torino

Stats from whoscored.com

Torino’s miniature pairing of Burdisso and Nkoulou kept Dries at bay, as did Verona both times and plucky mid-table side AC Milan. Perhaps there is a counter argument to the size debate: It’s what you do with it that counts. Dries’ greater mobility against big, old fashioned centre backs actually counts in his favour. There are, of course, issues with this metric – as many of us know – size is no guarantee of quality and being big, a-hem, doesn’t necessarily mean being good. Moreover Dries is a streaky player and tends to score in bursts – perhaps the issue of him scoring therefore has to do with when in his scoring cycle he is up against a team.

For me, the major factor is what sort of service he is being provided with. All too often in the second half of the season, we have seen ambitious failed crosses go over Mertens’ head. Dries can fit in to a number of tactical systems but needs the team to play to his strengths. When they do, the results can be fantastic which is why I think we should fight hard to keep him this summer.

A strong conclusion for me would be to suggest if we are going to start Dries, we must provide him with the right service since the stats show that he can score against big or small: it’s not the size of the boat, it’s the motion of the ocean.

PS: I’ll leave the full stats as an Appendix to this article for the stats nerds out there!

Appendix

Strangely, Cagliari’s back three in MW 26 were all exactly the same height. They must make them to order over in Sardinia!

Mertens Scoring Patterns

Match Week Scored? Av CB Height Team Notes

27

Yes

192.0

Roma

6

No

191.3

SPAL

25

No

191.3

SPAL

22

Yes*

191.0

Bologna MotM

35

No

191.0

Fiorentina

30

No

190.7

Sassuolo

3

Yes

188.5

Bologna

11

Yes

188.5

Sassuolo

34

No

188.5

Juventus

15

No

188.0

Juventus

18

No

188.0

Sampdoria

29

No

187.7

Genoa

33

No (DNS)

187.7

Udinese Milik Scored

16

No

187.5

Fiorentina

14

No

187.3

Udinese

4

Yes*

187.0

Benevento MotM

8

No

187.0

Roma

24

Yes

187.0

Lazio

2

Yes

186.7

Atalanta

21

Yes

186.7

Atalanta

7

Pen

186.5

Cagliari

9

No

186.5

Inter

19

No

186.5

Crotone

28

No

186.5

Inter

10

Yes*

186.0

Genoa MotM

23

Yes

186.0

Benevento

26

Yes

186.0

Cagliari All same height!

31

No

186

Chievo Milik Scored

13

No

185.0

Milan

12

No

184.5

Chievo

5

Yes

184.3

Lazio

1

No (DNS)

183.5

Verona

32

No

183.5

Milan

20

No

182.5

Verona

17

No

181.5

Torino

By Frank Sidekick 

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