Dries Mertens is the epitome of a modern football enigma. Fact.
At 30 years old, the Belgian forward is finally in his prime, scoring goals for fun at Napoli. As part of an irresistible front three alongside Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon, Mertens operates through the middle, the focal point of the most expressive and free-flowing team in Serie A who are a joy to watch on their day. You would think then, the goalscorer in a team which may well knock Juventus off their five-year perch, would be one of the most highly-valued talents in Europe. Right?
The obvious reason that Mertens is above most strikers in Europe’s goal-scoring charts, yet far below them in the market, is age. He is a perfect example of when a player enters their thirties, the stigma kicks and they are automatically past their prime, or close to it. Then again, most players who go on to have prolific careers well into their thirties don’t rely so much on pace or agility. Peter Crouch wasn’t dancing through defenders aged 22 and he certainly isn’t now. Yet, he is still plying his trade at the top level through a mix of presence and flying elbows.
Mertens, unfortunately, doesn’t have that privilege. The strengths of his game, namely his speed and dribbling, which have propelled him to the top level, will paradoxically, become his weakness as time goes on. Sure, he can, and will, adapt his game in coming seasons to rely more on guile and positioning, the same way Antonio Di Natale did as his lightning-quick speed became too fast for his ageing legs to keep up with.
The difference between Di Natale and Mertens, however, is a matter of instinct. Di Natale spent two decades as a striker, whereas Mertens has played that particular position for less than two years, since Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri made a bold decision to play him there. What a wise choice it would prove to be. In the three seasons prior to the switch, Mertens scored a combined 22 league goals. In the 2016-17 season, he scored 28 goals in 35 games as a striker.
It was his best-ever goalscoring season by far, at the age of 29, proving this writer’s theory that a player’s potential cannot be quantified by age. Wonderkids such as Kylian Mbappe will have been around in big teams for five years by the time they hit 23. By then, the world will know exactly what style of player they are, we will be able to look at several years’ worth of statistics and will more or less already be in their prime. Then there are players such as Riyad Mahrez, undiscovered gems who stay hidden until they burst on to the scene one way or another in their mid-twenties. There are also players who go to the Mario Balotelli school of ‘never-fulfilling-your-potential-because-setting-off-fireworks-in-your-house-is-just-too-much-fun’.
Mertens has made his own way to the top, operating as a winger throughout his career in various Dutch sides such as Utrecht and PSV. He only found a permanent club at APOVV, a now dissolved second-tier Dutch side, aged 20. Clearly a class above the Belgian third division, he moved to Utrecht at 22 and again impressed from the wing. His tally of 22 goals over two seasons earned a move to title challengers PSV. His goalscoring tally improved again, an average of over a goal every other game. Even in his younger days, the signs were there that the young Belgian winger could be lethal in front of goal.
The only person to take note was Sarr, now thanks to his masterstroke, Mertens is finally reaching his potential as a true goalscorer, and deserves fitting praise. A release clause of £25 million not only seems unbelievable in this day and age, but a godsend to every big club in Europe. A ready-made, top class striker available for just half a David Luiz, if that isn’t value I don’t know what is.
With just four months until the World Cup, it is usually a tournament where we see which of the world’s up-and-coming talents can prove themselves on the biggest stage of them all. For Mertens though, it may be a chance to secure a legacy as a world-class striker, who was never given the praise or value he deserved in his prime.