By Joe Fischetti.
On matchday 24 Dries Mertens scored his 120th goal for Napoli, just one shy of Marek Hamsik’s club record of 121.
Mertens scored the deciding goal against Cagliari in only his second start since the appointment of Gennaro Gattuso as traghettatore [interim coach] on December 11, 2019.
After taking the reins, Gattuso restored the 4-3-3 formation Maurizio Sarri employed during his very successful tenure as Napoli manager.
Under Sarri, Napoli finished second in the league twice and third once, and in 2016/17 season earned a club-record 91 points, just four points shy of champions Juventus.
The combination of the 4-3-3, Gattuso’s defensive style of play, and Napoli’s winter transfers has left little room for Mertens in the starting 11.
At 6’2” tall, Arkadiusz Milik has the build of a traditional No. 9 (or number 99, in this case). Milik, who is in form, with nine goals in 14 Serie A appearances, has won the favour of Gattuso over the 5’7” Mertens.
An alternative would be to move Mertens to the wing. During his two campaigns under Rafa Benitez Mertens split time with Lorenzo Insigne on the left. However, the club captain has been rejuvenated since Gattuso took over and is expected to start most matches.
Though Jose Callejon has owned the right flank for the better part of six and a half seasons, his contract expires this summer, and all indications are that he will not re-sign with the Azzurri. His position, though, is not likely to be filled by Mertens either.
Rather, winter signing Matteo Politano will take over Callejon’s spot. Politano signed with the expectation of playing more to improve his chances of being selected to Italy’s Euro 2020 squad.
In midfield, Diego Demme and Stanislav Lobotka were brought in to support Gattuso’s defensive approach. While Mertens is capable of playing a defensive role as well, as we saw in Napoli’s recent 1-0 victory over Inter in the Coppa Italia, his true value is in his ability to bolster the attack.
The is precisely where the Belgian has been used of late. Mertens is Gattuso’s preferred option off the bench, particularly when the club is behind.
The Belgian replaced Allan in Gattuso’s first match as manager against Parma. After only a minute on the field, Mertens assisted Milik on the equalising goal. On February 9th, Mertens replaced Lobotka when the side was down a goal to Leece, and after only three minutes on the pitch he assisted Milik’s equalizer.
For this reason, Mertens remains a very important part of this Napoli squad. He has the quality to play in most clubs’ starting 11, hence the interest from numerous sides both in the January transfer window and looking ahead to the summer.
Mertens offers a different skillset than Milik, forcing the opposition to adjust (often unsuccessfully) to his style of play when he comes off the bench.
Mertens could catch Hamsik as soon as Friday as the Partenopei visit the Rigamonti to take on 19th-place Brescia.
The match comes just five days prior to Napoli’s return to Champions League action in the knockout stages, where they face Barcelona.
With Milik nursing an inflamed knee, it’s quite possible Gattuso starts Mertens up front for the second consecutive fixture.
As the Partenopei are still alive in the Champions League, and are competing in the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia, Mertens will have plenty of opportunities to play in Serie A.
It’s only a matter of time before he surpasses Hamsik as the club’s all-time top goalscorer.