He may have just been around for one season at Newcastle, but Mikel Merino showed the kind of flashes of promise that convinced Rafa Benitez to bring him in from Borussia Dortmund in 2017.
The Magpies activated a buy-out clause in the loan deal that was agreed to take him to St James’ Park, with Benitez waxing lyrical about his fellow Spaniard following confirmation of his permanent arrival.
He said: “I’m really pleased we have been able to bring Mikel to the club permanently. He has played very well since he joined us. He has settled in quickly, has a lot of quality on the ball and is keen to learn – that is a crucial part of his future development.
“He has made a great impression at the club, and he is a good professional. He has confidence, but he is still young and has things to improve. He has to keep working hard and playing well, and hopefully he can improve and enjoy playing here.”
Sadly for the Magpies, Merino’s stay didn’t last for much longer. Some untimely injuries kept him out of action, and when he returned, the likes of Jonjo Shelvey and Mohamed Diame in particular seemed to flourish as a midfield partnership.
Towards the end of his time at the club, the purported release clause in the Spaniard’s contract seemed to become the topic of headlines, with Benitez reluctant to offer any assurances or guarantees that he would stay for the next season and beyond.
In the end, La Liga side Real Sociedad swooped in to take Merino off Newcastle’s hands, and his rise to prominence since then shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise for those back on Tyneside.
His creativity and passing seems to have thrived in a more technical Spanish league, with the 24-year-old now having picked up five caps for Spain’s senior side.
His performances have seen his value sky-rocket to an incredible £31.5m, and it is surely one of Benitez’s biggest regrets that he couldn’t somehow convince Merino to stay at Newcastle.