Why Napoli’s winger Dries Mertens should start for Belgium at the World Cup

Dries Mertens is one of the revelations of this season’s Serie A. The winger started his career in his hometown with Stade Leuven, Belgium and it was there that Anderlecht spotted the talented attacking midfielder and offered him a place in their youth academy. The youth coaches of Anderlecht were convinced that Mertens was too short and physically not able to ever become a professional football player despite his dribbling and shooting technique.

Because of this set back Mertens needed to find another club and moved to KAA Gent. The coaching staff of KAA Gent had the same idea about Mertens’ future as Anderlecht had; a good player but his physical limitations could hold him from a professional career. So KAA Gent loaned Mertens to third division club Eendracht Aalst and at the end of the season the winger was rewarded with the “player of the year award”. Nonetheless, KAA Gent still weren’t convinced of his talent yet and Mertens needed to find, once again, another club.

Mertens opted to leave his home country and instead crossed the border to the Netherlands where AGOVV Apeldoorn contracted Dries Mertens on a one-year loan deal with an option to buy. The second division club were convinced after one year and bought the attacker in 2007 from KAA Gent. Former Anderlecht and Vitesse coach, John van den Brom, was assigned as new coach of AGOVV Apeldoorn that season and Mertens would became one of his favourite players. Under van den Brom, Mertens became the captain of the team and in the 2008/2009 season Mertens won the “Golden Bull” which is awarded to the biggest talent in the league.

Finally it was time for Mertens to move on to bigger and better things after his great time with AGOVV Apeldoorn. Mertens moved to Eredivisie club FC Utrecht in 2009 and there the Belgian international once again became one of the fans favourite players with his flair and dribbling prowess. He ended second in the player of the year award that season after now-Liverpool star Luis Suarez (who was a player of Ajax at that time). He also won the David di Tommaso-trophy for the best player of FC Utrecht that year.

All the Dutch top clubs were interested in signing the Belgian winger. First the media thought that Mertens would move to Ajax but Mertens eventually signed a contract with PSV Eindhoven and Mertens moved together with his teammate Kevin Strootman to the “City of Light”. Belgian club Anderlecht were also interested in their former player but like Ajax they didn’t want to pay the asked transfer price.

Dries Mertens Napoli

In his period with PSV Eindhoven, Dries Mertens turned into one of the most efficiënt players in the Eredivisie. Not only did he score a lot of goals for a winger but he also provided a lot of assists. Mertens won one Dutch Cup and one “Johan Cruijff schaal” (game between Champions and Cup winner) with the Dutch top club and while Mertens kept on improving it was soon became apparent it was time for another step up in his career.

In 2013, Dries Mertens wanted to push himself to his limit and was ready for a bigger club in a more competitive league. Italian club Napoli was willing to pay around €9-10 million for the Belgian international which put a lot of pressure on his shoulders and proved a big step for Mertens, certainly in a season just before the World Cup. The Belgian player would have to be at his best if he wanted to have a lot playing time. Napoli didn’t only buy Mertens that summer but also other European stars like Gonzalo Higuain, José María Callejón and Raul Albiol.

Dries Mertens understandably needed some time to adapt in his first months in Italy. Belgian football experts feared he could lose his place in the national team by moving to Napoli and becoming lost in the shuffle of a talented players. However Mertens was patient, never panicking and waited until he got his chance. First, he became important for his club like we know him with the Belgian national team; coming on the last twenty minutes of the games and start to dribble every defender and shoot to death. Napoli coach, Raphael Benitez, wanted to see how Mertens performed when he started a game and the Belgian showed that he’s more than just a plan B.


Thijs Slegers

Thijs Slegers

Thijs Slegers, PSV-Watcher from Voetbal International, on Dries Mertens:

“Dries Mertens has the potential to play for a club near the top of European football. Real Madrid, Bayern München, Manchester City and other big clubs are maybe just one step too big for the former PSV attacker but a club like Napoli is a perfect fit for him. Mertens is a player who is one with the ball, has a lot of pace, can read the game and is involved in a lot of goals for his clubs. His main focus is his attacking game, which means he sometimes has difficulty helping his team defend. I was happy for him when he moved to Napoli. Not does he only have the football skills he’s also a very gentle and amiable person.”

“Mertens could certainly help Belgium at the World Cup in Brazil. It will be difficult for him keep a place in the starting XI with all those talented attacking players but he will certainly have the chance to show his potential. It’s a similar story at his new club Napoli. He doesn’t always start but he has already scored nine goals and got ten assists. If you can do that in the Serie A with Napoli you can also do that at a World Cup.”

I think that Belgian coach Marc Wilmots needs to consider to play with Mertens and Hazard as wingers and Kevin De Bruyne just behind them in the attacking midfielder role. That means that Marouane Fellaini has to move to the bench but you will create more attacking danger with this formation and have the possibility to kill a match with a quick counter-attack. Kevin De Bruyne can put the ball wherever Mertens, Hazard and Lukaku want and with their pace you’d expect only a ruthless outcome. With Kevin Mirallas, Marc Wilmots also has a player with the same capacities for this set-up.

In 2009, Dries Mertens was still playing in the second division of the Netherlands and now he is impressing everybody in the Italian Serie A. Maybe no longer the strongest competition in Europe but if there’s one thing they can do in Italy extremely well it’s defending. In his time in Italy Dries Mertens has shown us that most of the football ‘experts’ were wrong when they said that PSV Eindhoven was the best he could get. On the contrary, he’s showing that even Napoli is maybe just another step on his way to the top.

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