What will happen if Dries Mertens actually departs from Napoli in the upcoming transfer window?
The Belgian winger has scored 20 goals for the Partenopei this season, and along the way has become adored by the Stadio San Paolo faithful. Mertens has been linked to a move away from the Serie A, with Premier League interest and a reported offer from China likely still on the table. While the fans and club may be disappointed that the adopted Neapolitan may no longer sport the club’s signature blue shirt, they must realize they already have the solution to the void he will create: Arkadiusz Milik
Arek began playing on Rozwój Katowice’s youth team during the 2009-2010 season before making his senior debut the following campaign. Featuring in the III liga at the time (currently the fourth tier in Polish football), Milik scored two goals in his senior debut at 16 years old on October 23, 2010, ending the season with four goals in 10 appearances.
The player’s talents allowed him to advance all the way to Poland’s top league, the Ekstraklasa in 2011. Signing a one-year deal with Górnik Zabrze in July 2011, the talented young Pole scored 11 goals in 38 games with the club. Later, he headed to Germany to play with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, penning a deal with the club in the the winter of 2012. However, Milik only made eight appearances for Leverkusen as he was loaned out to two different clubs in the next three seasons.
In an effort to jumpstart his career, he signed a loan deal with FC Augsburg for the 2013-2014 season, tallying two goals in 18 appearances (five starts). The following year in Holland, Milik would enjoy his breakout season.
Breaking Out at Ajax
Arek’s first season with Ajax on loan in 2014-15 saw him score 11 time in 21 appearances, a total matching his career high for goals in a season dating back to his time at Zabrze. During the Amsterdam Derby in the Dutch Cup that September, the forward scored six goals against JOS Watergraafsmeer, and added a further two assists, contributing directly to eight in Ajax’s nine goals rout. His impressive debut season persuaded the Dutch side to activate the option to purchase in the deal made with Leverkusen.
The rising star made his 2014-2015 season seem minuscule after his next season was all said and done. Milik featured as Ajax’s main striker, bagging an impressive 21 goals, nine assists in 31 appearances.
Polish National Team
Milik’s success from his time in the Ekstraklasa and the Poland national youth teams allowed him to transition to Poland’s senior team, making his debut for the Biało-czerwoni senior side in October 2012. The Tychy native scored his maiden goal for the team in December that year in a friendly win against Macedonia. Since his senior debut, Milik has made 33 appearances and scored 11 goals, however, it’s important to note that the striker scored 16 goals in 17 appearances throughout his time playing for Poland’s U17, U19 and U21 teams.
Caught up in Robert Lewandowski’s stunning scoring streak, Milik played a huge role in Poland’s qualification in the 2016 UEFA Euro competition, scoring in the 2-0 defeat of Germany on Oct. 11, 2014. In France, his goal led the way for Poland in the nation’s Euro 2016 opening group victory over Northern Ireland 1-0.
Of course, Poland would be eliminated by eventual European Champion Portugal in the quarterfinals, however, Milik’s contributions were a big reason for Poland’s success.
Arriving at the San Paolo
Fresh off a strong showing in France, Milik joined Napoli from Ajax for €35 million euros on August 1, 2016, and made his name be heard immediately.
Due to Mertens’ success this season, fans may have forgotten that the 23-year-old Polish man started off his Napoli career with seven goals in his first nine matches, two of which came on his home debut in a 4-2 win over AC Milan. Soon after, Milik’s brace led the Partenopei to a crucial 2-1 away win against Dynamo Kyiv in UEFA Champions League group stage action in September. These matches were the first two examples of Milik showing he can lead the team in attack.
Too Good to be True: The Injury
It’s important to remember that the reason Milik fell out of place in Napoli’s attack was because of his devastating anterior cruciate ligament rupture in his left knee, suffered while serving international duty against Denmark on October 8. After a successful surgery and four months on the shelf, the Pole returned on February 15 against Real Madrid in the Champions League. During his rehab, a star emerged in the name of Dries Mertens, holding down the false-nine position in Maurizio Sarri’s starting eleven.
The Belgian star took over the striker role and Sarri has said that it would be wrong to ruin what has been working for the club. “I can’t ignore Mertens, a striker who has scored 19 goals in 16 games,” Sarri said to Sky Sport last month after Napoli’s win against Crotone. “Doing that would be madness. It’s clear that his production penalizes the other two, but it’s an important solution for us.” Napoli leads the Serie A with the most goals, scoring 68 as of April 1.
With the club’s scoring success, Milik has struggled to find playing time, only making mostly substitute appearances (6) with his lone start arriving against Juventus in Coppa Italia action.
Milik’s Strengths: Why He Is Key For a Strong Napoli Finish and the Club’s Future
The 23-year-old has showcased the qualities and abilities he possesses despite an abbreviated season with Napoli thus far.
The Polish talisman boasts a 6-foot, 1-inch frame, which helps him in the air. Milik showed that he can be lethal on headed attempts in the box, proving so with his goals against Kyiv. Size is only the beginning of his strengths as his passing ability is top-notch. He likes to play the ball off the ground and do layoffs with his teammates in order to create chances. Milik has averaged around 11 passes per game with a near 80 percent pass success rate in the Serie A this season, according to WhoScored.com.
The youngster’s shooting ability makes him capable of being a world-class striker with more experience. In front of net, Milik’s finishing is quite strong. Not only that, but the forward likes to take his chances from long range. Napoli continues its battle for second place as it trails Roma in the Serie A standings, and Milik could be very important to the Azzurri’s success in finishing the season. Even in substitute appearances, he has the talent necessary to produce chances in a short amount of time. Unselfishly, he contributes to his teammates as much as he looks for the goal himself.
Starting Milik would not only be beneficial for the player and the club, but for the future. Napoli brought in the former Ajax man to replace Gonzalo Higuain. They had the idea of the 23-year-old as their new star man up front for the long term, and club president Aurelio De Laurentiis would not have spent €35 million if he thought otherwise. Leonardo Pavoletti has not lived up to expectations in his limited playing time since joining from Genoa in January. The club also doesn’t have any other striker options apart from Mertens, Milik and Pavoletti.
For these reasons, it’s very important to get Milik all the playing time possible. Milik may once again be the first choice striker for the Italian giants come the 2017-2018 season if Mertens finds the exit door.
The striker’s performances against AC Milan, Dynamo Kyiv and Benfica provides the evidence that show he can lead the attack. Not only can Milik lead the attack, but he can lead his team to victory as shown in his time at Ajax and Poland in its Euro 2016 journey.
Milik has the qualities needed in order to succeed. Napoli must prepare him to be the main man once more.