At a time of scarcely believable transfer fees, Newcastle United’s signing of Mikel Merino on a year-long loan from Borussia Dortmund – with a purchase option – could well go down as one of the most astute pieces of business of the entire summer. In his 21 years and one month on this earth, Merino has already played in two different countries and is now preparing for his third, ready to put a disappointing year at the Westfalenstadion behind him. With endless potential packed into his six-foot-two frame, the Spaniard was wanted by three top-half LaLiga sides – the Basque trio of Athletic Club, Real Sociedad and Alavés – but ultimately decided to test himself in the Premier League. In a year’s time, the St James’ Park faithful will surely be glad that he did.
It is widely agreed, and regularly repeated, that Merino is a versatile player. While this is usually meant as a compliment, one of the keys to him finding success in England relies on him being given a fixed role by Rafa Benítez and being allowed to enjoy a run of positional consistency. In his two starts – in total he made just nine appearances – for Dortmund during the 2016/17 season, Merino played at centre-back, while he’d previously turned out for his hometown club Osasuna in the back line, on the wing, as a playmaker and as a defensive midfielder. Basically he can play anywhere, but it is in the latter position, that of protecting the back four, where he has looked most comfortable. So if Benítez plays him there, probably alongside Jonjo Shelvey in a 4-2-3-1, then Merino can shine.
From the newly promoted side’s defensive midfield, the left-footed player will be able to showcase his full treasure chest of talents, from his knack of winning the ball back and his aerial dominance to his ability to spray the ball around with medium-to-long passes and his predicting of where the play is going, seeing as many passes or moves ahead as a chess player. As he himself said of his playing style: “I think I am strong enough to play in this league [the Premier League]. I also have the technical ability to be here. I’m a midfielder with a lot of potential. I always like to help my teammates, with and without the ball. I like to play with the ball and control the game. I’m strong enough for one-on-one duels. I always want to attack and score goals and help the team go forward, but of course we know defence is a really important part of the game.”
“I think I am strong enough to play in this league [the Premier League]. I also have the technical ability to be here. I’m a midfielder with a lot of potential. I always like to help my teammates, with and without the ball. I like to play with the ball and control the game. I’m strong enough for one-on-one duels. I always want to attack and score goals and help the team go forward, but of course we know defence is a really important part of the game.” Mikel Merino
With Newcastle likely to play a lot of counter-attacking football during their return to the Premier League, Merino’s ability to push the ball forward quickly and accurately will be significant. As he himself admitted, defending will be the priority if he is indeed played in his natural position, but his ability to contribute in the attacking phase will undoubtedly shine through too. Many of the comparisons with Xabi Alonso may have been borne out of laziness – not all Basque midfielders who can pass are the same, never mind the fact that Merino is from Navarre – but it is true that some of his deep quarterback-esque passes from in front of the back four are as beautiful and as dangerous as those of the former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich man. Given how limited fellow new arrival Florian Lejeune is when playing the ball out from central defence – as previously discusses on Tifo– it will be important for Merino to develop a receive-and-recycle relationship with the French defender. If he can do so, then the Magpies are on to a winner, with Merino set to orchestrate their play from deep.
While he may not be the quickest player, the 2015 European Under-19 Championships winner can still impact the game when he runs with the ball at his feet, able to twist and turn inside and around defenders, always aware where the next pass lies. Because he’ll usually prefer to pass the ball, rather than shoot, having scored just seven goals during his career.
Six of those goals came during his breakout 2015/16 season, mid-way through which he signed a pre-contract agreement with Dortmund and at the end of which he helped Osasuna to a promotion to LaLiga through the play-offs. He never did enjoy the chance to play in Spain’s first division with the Pamplona-based club, as his father Ángel did before him, and the fact that Osasuna struggled so much upon their return to the top flight has a lot to do with his departure. All of a sudden their midfield ball of flaming energy was missing and they were unable to replace him.
Newcastle, then, won’t have any similar concerns as they aim to avoid a bounce-back relegation. Benítez is aware that Merino has a long way to go to become the player that many in Spain believe he will be. “Hopefully he’s the kind of player we can improve a lot,” the Spanish tactician said of Merino’s signing. “He certainly has the mentality to get better and better. He comes from a top side in Dortmund and, although he did not play too much last season, he was signed as a young, talented player. To be signed by a club like that shows that he has something good.” If Newcastle can help him along that journey towards realising his potential, then the club will have conducted a fantastic piece of business and will benefit enormously along the way.