Euro 2016 Player Preview: Dries Mertens
The decade from 2010-2020 has been regarded as the golden years in Belgium football. A terrorising strike force, fluid midfield, solid defence and an outstanding goalkeeper; Belgium have ticked all the boxes. From 37-year-old Jean-Francois Gillet to 21-year-old Jordan Lukaku, Belgium boasts of a versatile squad.
Among them is a 29-year-old lightning quick attacking midfielder who goes by the name of Dries Mertens. A talented midfielder/forward, Mertens plays his trade for Italian giants Napoli.
Along with the likes of Gonzalo Higuain and Manolo Gabbiadini, Dries is part of a lethal attack which can destroy even the strongest of defences. With the European Championships set to start in a couple of days, Mertens will look to translate his late club season form into international colours.
Born in Belgium, Mertens was picked up by scouts and started playing in the youth academy of Anderlecht. Later on, he moved to K.A.A Gent where he played in the youth team for two years. Surprisingly, he never managed to play a game for the senior team in the three senior seasons with the club. After subsequent loan moves to smaller clubs in Belgium, he finally landed in Netherlands, playing for PSV Eindhoven.
Mertens immediately tasted first-team action and displayed his talent with aplomb. He also scored two hat-tricks in seven games (PSV club record). Mertens ended his 2-year spell at PSV with 37 goals in 62 appearances, averaging a goal every 137 minutes, a record deemed as an excellent one for a winger of his age and capabilities. He also won the KNVB Beker Trophy at PSV during 2011-12. In 2013.
Napoli, managed by Rafa Benitez made the decision to sign Mertens for $10.8 million. Mertens made an instant impact in Napoli under Benitez, scoring 13 goals in 47 appearances in all competitions and clutching onto his first-team position.
Mertens won the Coppa Italia during his first-year itself with Napoli. The second season saw an ambitious and gifted Dries Mertens score 10 goals in 50 appearances and assist a further 16, most of them to the sniper up front, Gonzalo Higuain.
He won the Supercoppa Italiana with Napoli in the same season. In the 2015-16 Serie A season, a drop in his form coincided with the rise of talented Italian winger, Lorenzo Insigne. Opportunities were hard to come by for Mertens as he started only 11 games. He was superb in all those games scoring 8 and assisting 2. His hat-trick in the 6-0 win over Bologna has been his major accomplishment this season.
After excellent seasons with PSV, Belgium coach Georges Leekens called up Mertens for the 2012 European Championships qualification, where he made his debut against Finland. Even in international colours, Mertens has lived in the shadows of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. Featuring regularly since 2011, Mertens has made 44 appearances for his country and has scored 8 times.
Position: Left winger (LW) , Centre attacking midfielder (CAM)
Strengths: Having the second best shots to goal ratio in the 2015-16 league season, finishing is definitely Mertens’ biggest plus point. His passing is accurate and the 16 assists in his second season at Naples justifies it.
Mertens can dribble the ball all day and no one can stop him. He is also handy with taking set-pieces and delivering pin-point crosses. Mertens has a mean right foot and scoring from distance is child’s play for him.
Weakness: Mertens loses his cool when he gets dispossessed easily and often ends up committing silly fouls. Being an extremely attack-minded player, Mertens does not offer any help defensively. Standing at a puny 169 cm (5 feet 5 inches), Mertens does not possess any aerial threat whatsoever.
Style of play: Blessed with lightning pace and mind boggling dribbling abilities, Mertens likes to cut inside and do layoffs. He possesses a great counterattacking threat and thrives on crossing the ball.
Career High: Winning the KNVB Beker Trophy with PSV in 2012. Winning two Supercoppa Italianas with Napoli in three years. Being awarded as the “Man of the Season” with Belgian third tier side Eendracht Aalst.
Career Low: Spent 3 years at childhood club KAA Gent without playing a single game for them. Losing his place out to emerging Italian winger Lorenzo Insigne in the 2015-16 Seria A season.
Quotes: “Mertens is not a like Ferrari or a Mercedes. He resembles a Ford which does its work smoothly and efficiently”, Belgium head coach Marc Wilmots heaps praise on Dries Mertens.
Liverpool had registered an interest in Mertens back in January but held off from making a bid until the summer, However, according to TMW, Mertens has instigated talks with the club about extending his current deal, which expires in 2018. Mertens is likely to snub a move to Anfield due to the absence in Champions League football for the Merseysiders.
Belgium are placed in Group E along with Italy, Sweden and Republic of Ireland.
With the group regarded as “The Group of Death”, Belgium must find their feet quickly. They must decide on a formation which suits the majority of the players. With Wilmots opting either for the 4-3-3 or the 4-5-1 formation, Mertens can thrive playing behind Lukaku and with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Radja Nainggolan on either side.
With the likes of Eden Hazard, KDB, Thibaut Courtois and Dries Mertens, “The Rode Duivels” are a force to be reckoned with.