Substitutions are one of the most important elements in football. The cliché states that they can change the game but they can also reignite careers. For an example of this, you should look no further than Napoli’s Dries Mertens. When his manager, Maurizio Sarri, brought the pint-sized Belgian on as a makeshift centre forward against Roma last season, even he couldn't have predicted how much it would impact the club and the player himself.
It was exactly one year ago when the Italian coach found himself with a problem position. Gonzalo Higuain's replacement, Arkadiusz Milik, suffered knee ligament damage on international duty and Manolo Gabbiadini failed to make an impact which led to him making a swift move to Southampton.
Sarri’s reaction to this was to deploy Mertens as a number 9 and this decision may have come as a surprise to some when looking at the winger’s scoring stats in Serie A. Eleven goals in his debut season was a decent return but it took two years for him to double that tally.
At the start of the 2016/17 season, Mertens cut a forlorn figure around Naples as he grew increasingly frustrated with a lack of game time. Rumours began to circulate that replacements were being lined up in January but with that being a few months away, he was given a chance and it’s safe to say he hasn’t looked back since.
A Champions League game against Benfica in December was the start of a wonderful run for Mertens. A goal and an assist against the Portuguese champions was followed by a brace against Roma, hat-tricks against Bologna and Cagliari and four in the next match against Torino. In doing this, the 30-year-old became the first player to score three goals in consecutive league games since 1974 and the first to do it since Opta began their records in the 1994-95 season.
It’s not just the number of goals, 42 in 52 games, that has people talking but it’s the manner in which they are being scored. In the second half of Napoli’s 4-1 win over Lazio last month, Mertens chased a pass from Marek Hamsik and after the ball was pushed outside the box by goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha, a first time lob was launched into the back of the net prompting fans to compare it to a famous goal scored against the same opposition in 1985.
A certain Diego Maradona was the player who scored on that day and Napoli supporters were happy to rename the Belgian, ‘Dries Armando Mertens’ after their most famous Argentine son. Passionate celebrations may be another thing the two have in common as Mertens greets every goal with the delight of someone scoring their first.
The measure of how well a footballer is doing nowadays has a lot to do with how they are perceived on social media. Twitter has been set alight recently with some of the goals Merten’s has produced and that was the case again when he scored two against Genoa last week.
A superb free kick was followed by an exquisite finish that had videos doing the rounds for days online. Former Arsenal legend, Dennis Bergkamp once said, "The basics for me is the first touch. With that you can create your own time." And Dries Mertens certainly took that on board when he controlled a 40-yard pass with perfection, allowing him to breeze past a defender and smash a shot past the ‘keeper.
It’s certainly been quite a journey to this point for Mertens, who may be considered a late developer having only began playing top flight football for Utrecht aged 22. Finding his true calling late into his career may come as no shock then although Maurizio Sarri wishes it happened sooner.
The Belgium international finished last season with 34 goals and 15 assists across all competitions and was named as his country’s best player. His strike against Sassuolo at the weekend was the 12th in 16 appearances this term so far.
‘Ciro’, as the Napoli fans affectionately call him after the popular Christian name in the area, has had a crazy twelve months. Going from a sparsely used winger to a goal machine who has been compared to his club's greatest ever player. What a difference a year makes. What a difference a substitution makes.