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.
After each Champions League week, Sport360 brings you the best five players from the UEFA Champions League, as chosen by you the supporters through our ValoraFutbol fan ratings tool.
YOU have direct influence on who appears in each top-five, so be sure to rate each weekend.
What do you make of this week’s ratings?
1) THIAGO ALCANTARA (BAYERN MUNICH) – 8.3
The Spaniard scored twice as Bayern Munich ran riot against Arsenal, beating Arsene Wenger’s men 5-1 at the Allianz Arena.
The 25-year-old was once again the heartbeat to Carlo Ancelotti’s side – hammering home two goals in the second period to put his team in a very strong position to qualify for the last eight of the competition.
2) KEVIN GAMEIRO (ATLETICO MADRID) – 7.9
The France attacker led from the front for Diego Simeone’s men, netting a crucial second-half penalty as Atletico beat Bayer Leverkusen 5-1 at the Vicente Calderon.
Gameiro was instrumental up front and also provided the assist for Antoine Griezmann to score his team’s second goal.
Atletico, once again, seem to be gathering form at the right time as they make another Champions League charge.
3) MARCO VERRATTI (PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN) – 7.7
Verratti played a key role in PSG’s emphatic 4-0 first leg success over Barcelona in Paris.
The 24-year-old Italian showed flashes of class throughout the first leg and will be vital at the Nou Camp as the French giants look to wrap up the tie.
Most passes per game in the Champions League this season:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 22, 2017
T. Motta (87)
M. Verratti (85)
X. Alonso (84)
J. Weigl (84)
T. Alcântara (84) pic.twitter.com/UCEQoXiVvL
4) ANGEL DI MARIA (PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN) – 7.6
This was purely vintage Di Maria.
The Argentine hit two goals to help dismantle Barcelona and give a timely reminder, that at his best, he is one of the most revered wingers on the planet.
Di Maria’s showing was reminiscent of his famous performance in the 2014 UEFA Champions League final, where he helped Real Madrid to a win over city rivals Atletico.
5) SERGIO AGUERO (MANCHESTER CITY) – 7.6
The striking maestro played a crucial role in City’s memorable 5-3 triumph over Monaco, scoring two, as Pep Guardiola’s men came from behind on two occasions to secure an important advantage.
Aguero certainly played as if he had a point to prove and he delivered a display that has cemented his status as one of the game’s great strikers.
Not since Marseille lifted the European Cup 24 years ago has a French team had the game’s best club side. It has been a long, long wait. But that could soon change.
Following Manchester City’s stunning comeback to take a two-goal advantange to Monte Carlo for the return leg of this absorbing Champions League last-16 encounter, it may not be this season for Monaco, and Paris Saint-Germain may have greater hope.
Monaco just could not cope with the pressure from the hosts in a finale that was fabulous as well as frenetic.
But here is a team gifted and destined for glory.
Much has been said and written about their goal-scoring exploits in this campaign and they way they teased and tormented the Manchester City defence showed the praise was every bit justified. They are lightning on the counter and lethal.
It was summed up by the dazzling display of Kylian Mbappe who belied his 18 years with brilliance. There have been comparisons with Thierry Henry, but this evoked memories of Wayne Rooney when he first burst onto the scene as a teenager – and dare I say it, the Brazilian striker Ronaldo. It was that calmness and clinical approach.
Blessed with balance, skill and speed, he was fearsome in the front-line. With experience and faith from his coach, he will only get better.
That is something Raheem Sterling has clearly benefitted from since Pep Guardiola’s arrival. It has been the making of him as he has taken his game to another level after battles with inconsistency, belief and a price tag that seemed to weigh him down.
No longer isolated on the wing, as part of a front three and a regular starter, he has been tremendous. With confidence, his class has shone through and, along with summer signing Leroy Sane, City have the S-factor.
This exciting trio are world-beaters in the making.
But, in a game where it was all about the attacks, the young guns should not claim all the attention, though, as two ‘veterans’ proved their worth.
His awful penalty miss aside, Radamel Falcao turned back the clock to the time he was arguably the world’s best striker. The chip for his second goal was simply sublime and a riposte to those who witnessed his failings in Manchester when he was on loan at United.
Great strikers never lose that ability – as also proved by Sergio Aguero. Booked for a dive when it seemed he should have had a penalty and Monaco keeper Danijel Subasic shown a red card, he did not hide and instead displayed the hunger for which he has attained hero status at the Etihad. With constant questions about his future at City, Aguero revelled in being the main man again.
What he and City also showed was heart. Twice behind they refused to give up, or give in, to gain a momentous win on a night to remember for the fans. One of the great Champions League games.
Yet with all the missed opportunities and defensive failings, this tie is not over.
Monaco will have to gamble in the return, but it won’t be Monte Carlo and bust. On this evidence, they are heading for greater riches in the long term.