Since making the summer move across Holland, from hard-working Utrecht to the illustrious yet slumbering giant PSV Eindhoven, Dries Mertens has lit up the Eredivisie with some sensational performances that have set pulses racing. Stephen Rivers tells us more about the Leuven winger’s rise to prominence across the border.
When PSV Eindhoven hosted Roda JC this past weekend a home win was expected. Perhaps even the manner of victory – PSV putting seven past their opponents – wasn’t a great surprise based on the recent form of the two sides. During that game Belgian craftsman Dries Mertens scored four of the goals. Proving to be PSV’s brightest spark so far this season, Mertens form and ability to adapt to his new team has been so impressive that perhaps the most surprising thing about his four goal haul was, it wasn’t surprising at all.
Mertens movement and energy in the final third during that game was a joy to behold. He swerved a free kick beautifully into the top corner nobody would have expected past a confused Pawel Kieszek in the Roda goal. His second was a stinging low shot from distance, beating the keeper at the near post after being shown onto his right foot. Mertens third showed his craft, pulling away to the edge of the area to find space from a Kevin Strootman free kick before smashing the ball home. With the hat-trick complete he scored PSV’s seventh from the penalty spot. In 90 minutes the Belgian had displayed everything that was good about his game.
Following a disappointing end to the 2010-11 season that saw PSV not only come up short in the title race but also miss out on a Champions League qualifying place – finishing 3rd – the Eindhoven club sold their stadium and training complex to fund a much needed summer recruitment drive. PSV coach Fred Rutten was quick to turn to FC Utrecht’s talented young squad and snap up both Mertens and his teammate Kevin Strootman for a combined €13m.
Watching his performances throughout 2010-11, it is easy to see why Rutten was keen to bring Mertens to the Philips Stadion. The Belgian bagged ten Eredivisie goals for a side that ultimately underachieved. The payoff for PSV’s investment has come at an incredible rate. Mertens has already surpassed his goal tally for last season scoring eleven in his first seven league games for PSV.
FC Utrecht snapped him up from second-tier side AGOVV in 2009 for just €600k. When you consider that he did not represent Belgium at Under-21 level and only made his international debut in 2010 against Finland, it is of great credit to Utrecht’s scouting that they saw the potential in the player and helped him develop. Mertens has gone on to make five appearances for the national side and Belgium boss Georges Leekens must be hoping that he can establish himself as part of this talented, developing, Belgian national squad.
The love affair between the Eredivisie and Belgian footballers is strong and a move to the Eredivisie in 2009 was a logical step. So was a move to PSV Eindhoven whose own Belgian history includes such greats as Eric Gerets and Luc Nilis, both of whom captained the club during their spells in Eindhoven, Gerets going on to coach them too.
Dries Mertens is a versatile and mobile attacker who seems to find space with effortless ease. As happy drifting around the final third as he is hanging on the shoulder of the last defender, his diminutive physical nature has proved far from a weakness. After all many of the world’s most exciting attacking talents right now are the same, Mario Götze, Sergio Aguero, and of course the astonishing Leonel Messi.
Mertens can play off a typical number 9 or operate in wider areas, where his ability to float past defenders at ease has caused problems for every side PSV have faced so far this season. When his space is closed down and he is marked more tightly; his touch and close control, not to mention his turn of pace, can make even the most accomplished of defenders look foolish. What is perhaps most impressive, particularly for a player in his position, is that even when PSV have not played well he has impressed, something he also displayed in Utrecht. His goal in the opening game of the season against AZ Alkmaar was beautifully taken. When the side, and their coach, were booed at the end of their second game of the season – a 1-0 win against RKC Waalwijk – it was Mertens that had scored the winner.
Last season PSV Eindhoven were unable to secure the Eredivisie title, their challenge petering out as the side lacked creativity and energy from midfield in the absence of Ibrahim Affelay after his move to Barcelona. So far this season their new look attack featuring other new signings, Georginio Wijnaldum and Tim Matavz, has been vibrant. Their mobility and versatility has given PSV another dimension to their play and Mertens has been at the heart of everything.
If the early season form can be maintained, PSV Eindhoven could soon find themselves in possession of one of European football’s most sought after players. It seems the Eredivisie has found its next big thing in the shape of the 24-year-old Belgian. A career that should be watched with great interest – the potential is there to grow beyond the Eredivisie in time. First target though, winning the Eredivisie with PSV, which now looks achievable thanks to the performances of their most exciting new talent.