After Mikel Merino’s popularity and form simultaneously took a nose dive off the Angel of the North during the 2017/18 season, the once-unanimously adored midfielder returned to his homeland in a £10.8 million deal. Real Sociedad were the suitors willing to part with a relatively modest fee and prematurely end a Newcastle career that threatened to offer a rare beacon of hope for the club during the early season.
The scale of the demise is not distinctly tangible or easily traced from an outstanding individual moment, but a clear pattern unfolded during his one season with the club. Merino arrived at St James’ Park as an unknown quantity, boasting Borussia Dortmund on his CV and promising to sprinkle a touch of Spanish playmaking verve into the midfield.
That Spain exclusively produces conveyor belt after conveyor belt of players oozing technical quality yet bereft of physical power is so widely accepted that it’s become embarrassingly cliched, and the 21-year-old midfielder exacerbated that commonly accepted truism within his first few appearances.
‘It’s Mikel Merino’s world and we’re all living in it’, barked one stoic member of the Toon Army on social media, a feeling which epitomised the standpoint of an entire fanbase. It was of little surprise that Newcastle concluded a permanent deal just weeks into Merino’s loan deal, with Dortmund seemingly unconvinced by his credentials to grow into a Champions League standard footballer.
But just at the moment when Merino appeared to overwhelmingly endear himself to the Newcastle supporters, as well as Mike Ashley and Rafa Benitez, he seemed to fall off a cliff. The promised Spanish prince drifted into obscurity and was snubbed by his boss and fellow Spaniard as the highly functional pairing of Jonjo Shelvey and Mo Diame struck up a rhythm in midfield to carry Newcastle to safety.
There was no place for the aspiring, cultured midfielder in the midst of a gruelling, hard-tackling and physically unforgiving relegation battle. When the end of the season arrived Benitez was left with little choice on Merino’s future, per The Chronicle.
“In the end it was something we couldn’t control because he decided to go.
“We knew that could happen, so we had to be prepared – and in the end we were.”
And, despite the enormity of his popularity during the early stages of the season, Merino checked out of his transient English adventure with a notable absence of disappointment from the Newcastle fans. It was simply a poorly timed mismatch; Merino wasn’t ready for Newcastle and Benitez wasn’t ready for Merino.
The emergence of Sean Longstaff and the success of Isaac Hayden this season – two players who possess the energy, discipline and functional skill sets to operate as tireless box-to-box midfielders within Benitez’s pragmatic system – underline where Merino went wrong: his technicality and elusive playing style were poorly aligned with his compatriot’s demands.
Almost one year on from his departure it’s already abundantly clear that he is far more comfortable in the Basque country than he was by the river Tyne. Barring a couple of minor injuries and natural teething problems, Merino has established himself as a regular under Imanol Alguacil this season.
Two goals and three assists from 21 La Liga starts have been a welcome supplement to his defensive midfield duties. Sociedad’s number eight has averaged at just shy of 2 tackles and 3 aerials won per game, underlining his combative prowess, while his technical statistics leave room for improvement with a pass completion of 79.6% and an average of 0.4 key passes per game.
But for a 22-year-old playing his first full season in La Liga there have been a multitude of promising signs for Sociedad fans to mull over, most notably an outstanding display against Real Madrid shortly after the turn of the year, which earned him a match rating of 8.2.
Brains have been blended with brawn and his desire to transfer lessons from the English game to his new surroundings have manifested themselves in his disciplinary record: seven yellow cards, one red card and an average of 2.4 fouls per game perhaps suggest that his ruggedness was partly overlooked at Newcastle.
The decision to allow Merino to leave was one made by virtue of his desire to search for further exposure to first-team opportunities. He has already achieved that at the first time of asking and that comes as little surprise.
There was little or nothing Benitez could do to alter the circumstances which paved the road to Sociedad, but that won’t prevent feelings of regret from filtering into his consciousness at the end of a successful maiden campaign for Merino with his new club.