With two high-quality sides, Napoli-Inter will provide interesting match-ups across the pitch, but the most interesting comparison will be between centre-forwards Dries Mertens and Mauro Icardi.
Ever since Maurizio Sarri gambled on playing Mertens as a striker against Cagliari last season, the Belgian has been a revelation. His tally of 28 goals in Serie A was only narrowly beaten by Edin Dzeko, whilst a further five Champions League strikes puts the former winger in the elite of European goal-scorers.
Icardi, although placing two spots lower on last season’s Capocannoniere chart, has scored over 15 goals for three seasons in a row. With under a fifth of games played, the Argentinian already has nine strikes under his belt, and is well on track to surpass his record of 24 league goals.
However, for two centre-forwards with such comparable stats (Mertens contributed nine assists to Icardi’s eight last season), their game-play could not be more dissimilar.
The Inter captain is what English commentators like to call “a traditional centre-forward”, meaning, in essence, that Icardi does his best work in the opposition box. Mertens, on the other hand, is often referred to by lazy-observers as a ‘False Nine’, due to his small stature. Despite his height, Napoli’s Number 14 is, positionally, as much an outright Number 9 as Icardi, although technically, he relies more heavily on his pace and dribbling ability to beat centre-backs.
Mertens is also far more involved in his team’s build-up play than his opposite number, with Icardi relying on his teammates to bring the ball forward. However, labelling the Argentinian a goalmouth poacher would be to do him a disservice. The striker earned his second goal against Milan last weekend by tracking back, winning the ball off Lucas Biglia, before starting and then finishing a rapid counter attack.
Both the cause and effect of the outstanding form of these two forwards is their respective teams, which have been built to suit their talents. This adds an extra dimension to Saturday’s match, which is not just a battle of strikers, but of systems.
Since arriving at Inter over the summer, Luciano Spalletti has opted to tweak his side, rather than making wholesale changes. The impressive Milan Skriniar has come into centre-back, along with Borja Valero and Matias Vecino in midfield, but the formation has remained largely the same. What the former Roma Coach has done is bring a new level of functionality to his Inter team.
By fielding either Joao Mario or Mario Brozovic as an attacking midfielder, Spalletti created a team that is very difficult to break down, but is heavily reliant on Icardi to score. Last week, Antonio Candreva admitted that their team have spent a lot of time training crosses, and the match against Milan was perfect evidence of how this paid off. Icardi’s first goal came from an early Candreva cross, the second a scuffed ball from the left flank from Ivan Perisic. With a solid platform to work on, Icardi has greatly benefited from Spalletti’s tactical reconfiguration.
Sarri, tactically at least, could be considered the anti-Spalletti. Although both men are scholarly Coaches, the Neapolitan favours the tiki-taka school of football, turning his Napoli side into one of the most aesthetically pleasing teams in Europe. With a focus on short passes, his ideology suits Mertens’ style of play, allowing him to either come deep and link with play, or wait for the defence to be drawn out before running in behind.
Sarri’s system is custom-made to enhance the Belgian’s strengths, whilst negating his weaknesses. On the left wing, Lorenzo Insigne’s preference for cutting inside, once considered a weakness, allows for interplay with Mertens, whilst on the opposite flank, the more physical Jose Callejon is often the recipient of crosses to the back post.
Similarly, captain Marek Hamsik plays almost as a second striker when attacking, making runs in behind the defence to free up space. Tactical fluidity, allowing players to interchange positions, makes it a nightmare for defenders to pick up Mertens.
The difference between these two painstakingly precise systems go some way to explaining Icardi’s exclusion from the Argentina national side. In order to suit the mercurial talents of Lionel Messi, Coach Jorge Sampaoli’s system matches Sarri’s and avoids long balls or crosses into the box. As good as Icardi is, his abilities rely on good service. Likewise, before his injury, Arkadiusz Milik struggled to reintegrate in to the Napoli team, as he appeared a square peg in the round hole when attempting to replace Mertens.
Without doubt, both Icardi and Mertens are amongst Europe’s top centre-forwards. However, neither would have had anywhere near the impact that they are currently enjoying, were it not for their respective Coaches moulding a system to their talents.
The fact two players that are so stylistically different inspire such similarly contrasting tactics is part of what makes football so fascinating. And we would hope, will make Napoli vs Inter an enthralling watch.