The 60-second story
The rise of Belgium has been one of the most talked about storylines in recent times at international level. A gifted, exciting, ethnically diverse generation has emerged, playing with joy and enterprise and ending the Red Devils’ 12-year exile from the world stage. Unbeaten in qualifying, Belgium rose to the point they were even considered a dark horse to win the World Cup. Then they soared further – to fifth favourites, ahead of Italy, Holland, France… even England!
This might be slightly overrating the Low Landers but the list of quality players at coach Marc Wilmots’ disposal is noteworthy: Vincent Kompany, Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne, Jan Vertonghen… we could go on but, well, you get the point.
One player with not quite as high a profile, but who could nonetheless play an instrumental role in Belgium’s World Cup campaign, is Napoli’s Dries Mertens.
Why you need to know him
Simple, really. He’s a very good player. Born in Belgium’s Flemish region in the city of Leuven, Mertens has always skirted around the fringes of European football stardom, but never really quite exploded onto the scene.
You might have heard of him: he’s been linked to enough clubs at one point or another. Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Spurs, Manchester United, Ajax – over the years the Dries Mertens transfers rumours have been abundant. But so far the 27-year-old’s career trajectory has taken in AGOVV, Utrecht, PSV Eindhoven and current club Napoli. He's about to enter what should be the peak years of his career, and Napoli are only too keen to hold onto him.
A tricky, skilful, diminutive winger, Mertens is right-footed but can play on either flank or as a trequartista. He can switch the afterburners on and charge down the right flank, but is better down the left, where he uses imagination and vision to cut inside and make threatening runs into the box.
At 5ft 7in Mertens is the same height as Lionel Messi. Although nowhere near as capable as the Argentine maestro, Mertens uses his low centre of gravity in similar style, buzzing around in wide areas and bamboozling defenders.
Name: Dries Mertens
Date of Birth: 6th May 1987
Height: 5ft 7inches
Position: Winger (Left/Right)
Previous clubs: Gent, AGOVV, FC Utrecht, PSV Eindhoven
Current club: Napoli (47 appearances, 13 goals)
International record: Belgium (25 appearances, 3 goals)
Honours: PSV - KNVB Beker (Dutch Cup) 2012, Dutch Super Cup 2012/13, Napoli – Coppa Italia 2013
His size hasn’t always had advantages, though. Discarded by Anderlecht and overlooked by Gent for being too small, Mertens’ path to professional football really only began after crossing the border into the Netherlands. AGOVV Apeldoorn, who count Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Nacer Chadli and Raimond Van der Gouw among their alumni, were the launchpad for Mertens’s career. There he excelled, becoming captain, and winning the 2009 Gouden Stier, awarded to the best player in the Dutch second division.
A late bloomer, Mertens only started playing football at the highest level at 22, making his Eredivisie debut for Utrecht in 2009. A modest club, Utrecht were helped by Mertens’s stellar performances into qualifying for Europe for the first time in four years. Mertens was so good, in fact, that he was nominated for Dutch Footballer of the Year, claiming the silver boot after finishing second behind Ajax’s Luis Suarez.
With his stock rising, he was lined up by Ajax the following season to replace Suarez, after the Uruguayan left Amsterdam for Liverpool. The bid was rejected, and eventually Mertens joined PSV, in a double swoop that also saw Kevin Strootman head to Eindhoven.
Both wonderfully gifted technically, Strootman and Mertens helped PSV win the Dutch Cup and Super Cup in 2012. The pair now ply their trade in Serie A - the former at Roma and Mertens at Napoli, who became Rafa Benitez’s first signing at the Partenopei last summer, for €10million.
Mertens had to fight hard just to get into Napoli’s team last season. In Benitez’s rigid 4-2-3-1 system, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon also compete for the wide slots, and Mertens’ introduction in southern Italy was gradual.
The same is true at international level. Mertens didn’t make his Belgium debut until 2011 - against Finland in Ghent, ironically, at the same stadium of the club who tossed him aside as a kid. No stranger to hard work, he soon won Rafa over, just as he has Wilmots with Belgium. He ended up making 47 appearances in all competitions for Napoli last season, winning the Coppa Italia and scoring in the final.
Mertens now has 25 caps to his name and three goals, scoring the winner in Belgium’s final World Cup warm up against Tunisia - a goal that might just push him into the Red Devils' starting lineup in Brazil.
The 27-year-old has an array of qualities. He can dribble, shoot, pick out a pass and is a dead-ball specialist. Mertens anticipates danger well; positionally he knows where to move to find space. His passing is outstanding at times and he loves charging into the box, either playing a neat one-two with the striker to pull defenders out of position or sliding a perfectly-weighted through ball to a team-mate.
His goalscoring record is outstanding for a wide player, consistently averaging a goal every three games throughout his career. Mertens banged in 45 goals in 88 appearances for PSV, some tally, and can count long-range stunners like this for Napoli in his repertoire. On the training ground he’s also very professional and determined. According to Rafa Benitez, Mertens is “an example to all professionals for how you should approach training.”
His Instagram page is pretty neat, too (though you should probably skip past March 2013 if you're eating lunch).
Though a hard worker, Mertens is far from the best defensive winger. At times his work in tracking back and covering the opposite full back leaves a lot to be desired and his occasionally lethargic closing down leaves space for opponents to run into.
Tackles, interceptions – the defensive side of things is not particularly an area Mertens excels at. This can cause problems against the better teams, whose full backs often double up as menacing attacking threats. Kevin Mirallas is much more suited to this, and it may explain why Wilmots has often preferred the Everton man.
“I know Dries well and I know what he is capable of doing,” Napoli boss Rafa Benitez told Voetbal International earlier this year. “He is an exemplary professional and is improving even more at the moment, especially with his defensive movement and positioning. But he can do even better!” added Rafa, ever the perfectionist.
Did you know?
Few people have a bad word to say about Dries Mertens, but one Christmas card list you won’t find him on is Gary Cahill’s. It was Mertens’ needless challenge that injured Cahill during a friendly against England two years ago, ruling the Chelsea defender out of Euro 2012 just days before it kicked off.
What happens next
As things stand it looks as though Mertens will find himself cast in that most famous of supporting roles, the impact sub. Wilmots appears to favour Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Kevin Mirallas behind the striker, and that means Mertens may have to wait for his chance.
Nonetheless, Brazil’s muggy climate means intelligent squad rotation will be more important than ever at this World Cup. Mertens’ chance will come and if Belgium are to do as well as many people are suggesting they’ll need his energy and skill to inject tempo into evenly-balanced matches against gritty, tenacious defences.
Great international teams need game changers. Germany had Oliver Bierhoff. France had Sylvain Wiltord and David Trezeguet – wild cards who come on and make dreams come true. If he's not in the starting eleven, Dries Mertens might just be Belgium’s all-important twelfth man.
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