I would imagine not even Dries Mertens’ mother or biggest fan expected the Belgian to have the season he’s had. Before this season, Mertens had only hit double scoring figures for Napoli once, his first season in 2013/14. He mostly played out wide for Partenopei, thus excusing his modest goalscoring record.
However, following the departure of Gonzalo Higuain last summer, and Arkadiusz Milik’s injury early in the season, someone had to step up to fill the striker role. Twenty five goals and eight assists in the league later, Sarri’s vision for Mertens to become a striker has come to fruition.
Then came the issue of him potentially leaving, with few predicting Mertens to have a breakout year, the prospect of him running down his contract in 2018 wasn’t particularly scary. But now Napoli have happily stumbled upon one of Serie A’s premier strikers.
The announcement of Mertens’ contract renewal may prove to be Napoli’s best business this summer. Why? This move essentially firms Napoli firmly into ‘win-now’ mode.
It’s been difficult to see what this Napoli’s side future is. Coming off that inspiring 15/16 season, where they ran Juventus harder than anyone has since 2012, you’d think of course their goal should be to win now. However, the majority of their signings last summer were with the future in mind; Amadou Diawara, Piotr Zielinski, Nikola Maksimović and Milik.
Combined with last year’s ‘almost’ team, this left Sarri’s side in a weird flux of ‘we should be competing’ mixed with ‘these youngsters need game time to develop’. These opposites combining have left Napoli in third on 80 points. Not a bad total for third place, but it’s still five points off Juventus’ total.
With a €30m release clause kicking in next summer (I doubt anyone will splash that on a 31 year old), it’s obvious what de Laurentiis is looking for next year: a Scudetto.
It’s entirely possible that you could give Maurizio Sarri a garbage bag and he’d turn them into a 20 goal a season striker. However, it’s also entirely possible that Napoli have stumbled upon an absolute jewel here. It’s not often you come across league winning strikers, and Mertens is more than capable of becoming a Scudetto winning striker.
Napoli need to capitalise on the Belgian’s peak, because who knows how long it’ll last? He’s 30 this season so you’d assume he’s on a downward curve physically, but he’s played limited minutes in previous seasons, so his physical prime may be extended a year or two.
The Scudetto hopes in Naples pinned on Milik’s ability to develop into a top striker. This season’s surprise development has bought time and eased the pressure off Milik. He doesn’t have to become a top striker right away, and will be able to develop without pressure for another year or two.
One thing’s for certain: Napoli can’t be stuck in two minds this summer. It’s fine to buy younger players with the future in mind, but Napoli need to be purchasing with the Scudetto in mind. They’ve had a transitional season, it’s time to steal Juve’s crown.