As transfer rumors continue to swirl, Chelsea’s most likely deal is a bit underwhelming. For whatever reason, Frank Lampard seems dead set on bringing in Dries Mertens, who would be available on a free transfer.
Chelsea’s attempts to secure Dries Mertens’ signature in January fell on deaf ears, which prevented Olivier Giroud from joining one of Inter, Lazio, or – god forbid – Tottenham. To his credit, Giroud has been a model professional since then, and even claimed a starting role in place of the injured Tammy Abraham until the suspension of play. Chelsea have since chosen to activate a clause to extend Giroud’s contract for another year. That could just be a business decision intended to wring a transfer fee out of whichever club might come knocking this summer, or it could hint at Giroud sticking around a bit longer.
However, if he does intend to stay put, that makes the signing of Dries Mertens look a bit awkward.
On paper, Mertens would be a veteran presence who could link up well with the rest of Chelsea’s attacking players, while having a decent nose for goal himself. That’s essentially Giroud’s job description at the moment. The big difference is that Giroud has established himself in the Premier League over the past eight years, while Mertens would be playing in England for the first time at 32 years old. Mertens is only a year younger than Giroud, and has a physical build that’s not nearly as suited to the Premier League as Giroud’s.
What’s more, Mertens’ formerly prodigious scoring numbers have begun to drop off severely. After totaling a career-high 34 goals in all competitions in the 2016/17 season, his scoring has dropped from 22, to 19, to now just 12 goals in this abridged season. While those numbers clearly dwarf Giroud’s in recent years, there’s no reason to think he’d offer any significant contribution beyond what Giroud can provide.
His assist numbers have held up a bit better (12, 12, 12, and six in the same span), but creating chances is definitely not Chelsea’s most pressing issue.
Even more concerning is the fact that he’s rarely playing full matches these days. Out of Napoli’s 29 fixtures this season, Mertens has only started in 19. Of those, he’s only lasted the entire 90 minutes on nine occasions.
At 1,787 minutes, he’s registered less than half of last season’s total of 3,016, which itself was a steep drop-off from 3,807 in 17/18.
If he’s meant to be Chelsea’s second option behind Tammy Abraham, this makes no sense. If he’s supposed to be the third choice, they might as well just keep Giroud.
The whole situation reeks of an issue Chelsea have had for years: the penchant for bringing in prolific forwards several years too late.
Whether it’s Hernan Crespo, Andriy Shevchenko, Radamel Falcao, Samuel Eto’o, or even Fernando Torres, Roman Abramovich and Co. can’t help but be seduced by the big names that are known around the world.
Mertens might not quite have that level of fame, but he is Napoli’s all-time leading scorer. He’s a bona fide goalscorer. Or at least he was.
Ironically, in the same window they first chased Mertens, Chelsea swung at and missed another player who falls into this category: Edinson Cavani. Chelsea were strongly linked with Cavani in 2013, when he made his move from Napoli to Paris Saint-Germain. Six and a half years later, Chelsea came back to kick the tires on the now 33-year-old striker before ultimately deciding that paying his wages would cause a financial black hole, even if he arrived on only a six-month loan. It was a rare moment of clarity for a board that has consistently paid above the odds for ex-world beaters who are headed towards – or are firmly in – the twilight of their careers.
The emergence of a young striker like Tammy Abraham complicates the process of bringing in a suitable backup. It’s hard to find a striker at least nominally in his prime who is willing to accept an understudy role behind a 22-year old.
Chelsea have been fortunate that Michy Batshuayi was willing to make that sacrifice. The issue is that Chelsea clearly need someone more productive in that slot. Dries Mertens is not the answer.
Three or four years ago it would have been a great idea. But it’s not a role he’s suited for in the Premier League at this point. Chelsea should be looking elsewhere. If anything, Arkadiusz Milik, the man who has grappled with Mertens for a starting spot at Napoli, would arguably be a better option. Chelsea have been tenuously linked to him in recent days, but a deal for the 26-year-old Polish international doesn’t sound likely.
In a transfer market that’s likely to be comparatively quiet and fiscally conservative, free transfers like Mertens could be the most enticing type of deal this summer.
It’s not necessarily bad for Chelsea to be poking around, but if the plan is to slot Mertens in as the second option after Tammy Abraham, the move is misguided at best. He’s a third-choice option if he plays in the Premier League, and Chelsea already have a solid veteran back-up in Olivier Giroud.
Giroud would be a perfectly decent second option, based on his performances before the suspension of the season. There’s no reason to think Mertens would provide anything better, or even similar.
It’s all conjecture at this point, but Mertens does seem to be the most likely player to arrive at Chelsea this summer. In all likelihood, it’ll be another Falcao situation: the type of guy who would have been a game-changing signing four years ago, but just doesn’t offer much now.
Presumably, he’ll come on a one-year deal, which softens the blow a bit. But the wages will be high and he’ll require integration into the team in a summer where training sessions will be atypical, to say the least.
On the plus side, the world is starving for any sort of football news, so one completed deal would be just the dose of serotonin the footballing world desperately needs.