Describing Dries Mertens as a ‘false nine’ does him a disservice. Napoli’s Belgian talisman, a natural-born, jet-heeled winger, may have been forced into an unusual centre-forward role since Gonzalo Higuain’s acrimonious departure to Juventus last summer but he is not merely filling in.
Mertens possesses the movement, the awareness and the dead-eyed finishing of one of world football’s best number nines. With a career best 27 goals in 39 games in all competitions, perhaps the best compliment you can give Mertens right now is that Napoli have barely stopped to think about Higuain’s ‘betrayal’.
Yet, according to Belgian publication DH, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Mertens could follow his Argentine predecessor out of the Stadio San Paolo. The club and player have been embroiled in discussions over a new contract for some time with his current deal expiring in 2018.
And DH report that Napoli want to place a release clause in a new deal amid interest from a number of suitors – particularly Tottenham Hotspur.
Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino is known to be on the search for attacking reinforcements to take the goalscoring burden off Harry Kane and who better than one of Europe’s most in-form strikers? Mertens, at 29, may be a little older than Spurs’ usual targets but his track record suggests he could be the man to bridge the gap between third or second and first.
Football Italia reported in January, however, that Napoli may be forced to instil a release clause of just over £30 million in Mertens’ contract, with the forward keen on a move to a ‘top club’. Therefore, he would overtake Moussa Sissoko as Spurs’ record signing.
Yet, while that fee appears a bargain for such a prolific goalscorer, it doesn’t compare to the bargain Spurs could have snagged back in 2012. ESPN reported that Mertens, then of PSV, had caught Tottenham’s eye but, after failing to secure his services, he moved to Napoli a year later for just £7.5 million (Goal).
Four years on, the phrase ‘better late than never’ comes to mind.