Jose Mourinho has never been one to follow the herd, preferring to remain football’s arch-contrarian.
Whether by fault or design, the Manchester United manager is continuing to play that part with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.
Whereas that duo are, by trade, central strikers being asked by the Portuguese to play out wide, the growing trend outside Old Trafford is to do the complete opposite.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the obvious examples (although the term ‘winger’ is loose given their respective goalscoring prowess as more advanced, wide forwards) but over the last couple of seasons a number of others have followed in their bootsteps.
In the early stages of their careers, Antoine Griezmann, Alexis Sanchez and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were all primarily stationed out wide.
Griezmann a skinny, lightweight whippet on the left for Real Sociedad before being dragged inside by Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid; Sanchez at Udinese played to the right of Antonio Di Natale and then on the shoulder of Messi at Barcelona; while Aubameyang was first deployed as a striker by Christoph Galtier at St Etienne before moved back to the flank by Jurgen Klopp at Dortmund and then returned to the centre by Thomas Tuchel.
Of the new school, Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe, Gabriel Jesus of Manchester City and Schalke’s Breel Embolo will all undoubtedly follow similar paths.
With transitional football the norm and possession and patient build-up decidedly out of fashion, having a quick, agile and skillful No9 who can match up and beat defenders one-on-one while maintaining a coolness in front of goal represents a considerable asset.
But the latest to follow the pattern is perhaps the most unexpected of them all. Thrust into the position at Napoli following the injury to Arkadiusz Milik, the 1.69m tall Dries Mertens admitted in November he was “learning every day” about his new role having carved out a career as a tricky and often frustrating winger.
Yet the results have been dramatically successful. In the 18 matches he’s started as Napoli’s central frontman the 29-year-old has scored an astonishing 17 goals; that figure alone eclipses nine of his previous 11 seasons as a professional.
In total his 22 goals in 32 appearances is second only to the 27 in 49 games for PSV in 2011/12.
To achieve this all in what is, theoretically, the post-prime era of his career, is truly exceptional.
Dries Mertens has now scored 15 goals in his last 15 games across all competitions for Napoli. 🔵— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 4, 2017
Form of his life. pic.twitter.com/GUNuaN7usD
Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri deserves considerable praise for the free brand of football he has preached.
For a naturally mercurial player such as Mertens parachuted into an unfamiliar position that requires discipline and patience, he needs to know he can make mistakes. It’s an approach which has helped fuel one of the best attacking outfits in European football and with Milik now back to full health, Sarri has several options in attempting to claw back the 3-1 deficit to Real Madrid on Tuesday night.
With Real’s occasionally cumbersome central defensive duo of Sergio Ramos and Pepe often vulnerable against nimble attacking players, Mertens could cause Los Blancos some serious problems.
One of his predecessors in the position at Napoli, Edinson Cavani, said of him: “We have the same characteristics, he acts as a central striker but, in my opinion, he is not. It is a matter of centimetres.”
That may be true but, then again, Mertens is also helping redefine what exactly a central striker is.