In modern football every team is trying to use the biggest strengths of their players, which is completely logical and obvious. However, when it comes to top sides, it’s very rare to see just one player defining the style of a whole team. Sides like Juventus, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have been changing personnel throughout the season, yet very little has mutated in their playing style.
Of course every rule has some exceptions, as Napoli and Inter are two of the very few teamswhose playing styles are so dependent on just a single element. In both teams, the importance of the centre-forward is pivotal.
In Napoli, Dries Mertens has been a real revelation and a key figure since Arkadiusz Milik’s first of several unfortunate injuries. At just 1.69m tall, the Belgium international looked like a player only capable of filling in the role of a False Nine, as he lacks the physicality to play as a classic striker. However, Mertens’ intelligence and quality allowed him to become a real predator in the penalty area, which combined with his pace, skill and trickery make him the perfect weapon for Maurizio Sarri’s attack.
One of Napoli’s main strengths going forward is their pace, as all of their main forwards are fast, skillful players, capable of exploiting spaces and hurting the opposition on the break.
When it comes to passing, through balls are the Partonepei’s speciality and Mertens’ average of 1.9 key passes a game highlights his ability to contribute to the cause. Similar to a False Nine, the 30-year-old often drops deep to execute a quick link up play with Napoli’s midfield. This often confuses the opposition and allows Sarri’s players to create his infamous attacking triangles, which open up spaces for Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon.
What makes Mertens a truly unique centre forward is his ability to choose the right timing for his runs and get back in a good position after he has dropped off deep. For a player that has been a winger throughout the biggest part of his career, this is more astonishing even than his deadly finishing.
The ex-PSV man has banged in 44 goals and 11 assists throughout the last two seasons, which really is extraordinary. Considering the way Napoli are currently playing, it’s going to be a real shock if Mertens doesn’t add a few more strikes to that tally by the end of the season.
When it comes to scoring goals and defining a team’s gameplay, Serie A has another perfect example in Mauro Icardi. The Inter captain is a completely different striker to Mertens, as the Argentine is a classic poacher, who spends the majority of the time in the opponent's penalty box.
Compared to Mertens, Icardi plays with the ball less often and his sole purpose is to hit the back of the net. This is backed up by both players’ passing stats, as the Belgian is averaging 26.3 passes per game, which is more than double Icardi’s average of just 13.9. Mertens’ key passes per game are 1.9, which is almost twice the one key pass per game of the Inter hitman. Icardi has also registered just one Serie A assist this term, which is some way off the Belgian’s tally of six.
Icardi’s strengths are simply different, as one the main aspects that make him so dangerous is his positional awareness. The former Sampdoria man always seems to be at the right place at the right time and he is averaging just 0.8 offsides per game, which highlights his ability to time his runs.
Considering Icardi’s playing style and the amount of time spent on the back of the opposition defenders, the number is low and perfectly complements his incredible finishing ability. Icardi’s shot accuracy this season currently stands at the incredible 68%, which is significantly higher than Mertens’ 52%. This clearly shows just how pragmatic of a striker the Nerazzurri man is.
Pragmatism is the most typical part of Inter’s game and this is mainly due to Icardi’s presence in the starting XI. When the 25-year-old is on the pitch, Luciano Spalletti’s men often prefer to play crosses and balls over the top, counting on Icardi’s instincts and ability in the box. This makes Inter the complete opposite of Napoli, as Inter’s build-up play is often slower, moving the ball from side to side. The purpose of this is to stretch the opposition and put the full backs and wings in advanced wide positions, so the ball can be crossed to Icardi.
There is no doubt that both Mertens and Icardi are two fantastic centre-forwards, who interpret the role in a completely different way. When at his best the Belgian looks like a perfect mix between a skilful False Nine and a Icardi-like poacher, while the Inter captain is a more orthodox striker, who might not be as capable of creating chances as the Napoli man, but is arguably even more deadly when given the opportunity to shoot at goal.
In conclusion it can be said that both of them define their sides’ playing styles, which are an almost complete opposite. On one side we have Mertens’ pace, skill and on-the-ball ability which were one of the main reasons for Sarri implement his possession-based fluid attacking playing style. On the other hand, Inter’s pragmatism is often caused by the simplicity of Icardi’s game and while some don’t like the Nerazzurri’s approach, there is no doubt that, when executed correctly, it becomes deadly.
With Napoli and Inter set to lock horns at San Siro on March 11, Mertens and Icardi will have the perfect chance to show the world their unique styles of play, which pretty much define their teams too.