I must profess that, despite following Spanish club football pretty closely for over 15 years, I had no idea who Mikel Merino was when his name was mentioned yesterday. Judging by the reaction and comments posted on social media and amongst TF contributors it appears that none of us particularly had a clue about our new lad!
A bit of quick internet research tells us that he’s a Spanish U21 international and son of a former professional footballer and coach who started out at his home town club Osasuna in the Navarrese city of Pamplona where he was born in 1996. Navarra was a medieval Basque kingdom annexed by Castile in the 16th century. It’s not part of what is known as the Basque country (País Vasco) today but given the historical connotations and the strong sense of regional pride amongst Basques it’s now clear why there was some absolutely magnificent FEWM from some Athletic Bilbao supporters on Twitter the day the signing was announced!
Merino made his first team debut at the age of 18 in the 2014/15 season in which Osasuna only just avoided relegation from the second division by one point. His performances helped a weak side avoid relegation and he became a regular starter. He clearly came in to his own in the 2015/16 season helping the team that had avoided relegation to the third division by the skin of its teeth sneak in to La Liga via the play-offs having finished in 6th place on goal difference.
He played an important role in the Spanish under 19 UEFA European Championship win and his performances for Osasuna led to his move to Dortmund and Spanish U21 recognition. The move to Dortmund cost around 2 million Euros up front with add-ons that could’ve eventually taken the fee to over 3 million. At the time of his signing for Dortmund he was called a ‘great talent’ by the Club’s Sporting Director.
Making only 9 appearances at Dortmund last season would suggest that he’s maybe surplus to requirements there. However, TF were lucky enough to speak to Javi Gómez, a reporter who covers Osasuna for the daily newspaper Diario de Noticias de Navarra, and it appears that he’s leaving Dortmund not because he’s not rated but simply because he wants to play. Javi’s answers to our questions are below:
- What is the general consensus on Mikel in Spain? Do people believe he has a good future in the game? Is he still a raw talent with much to learn and does he have the ability right now to make a mark in the Premier League or La Liga?
- Mikel is one of the most important young players in Spain at the under 21 level. He’s already an established talent but he can still improve. Over the course of the last year he’s grown physically and is stronger. I believe he’s ready to play in the Premier League.
- How was he at Osasuna? Was he a significant influence during the promotion season of 2015/16? Was he replaced sufficiently last season?
- Merino was the reason for promotion. The best player in the team that went up. Vital – without him the team wouldn’t have gone up. He definitely wasn’t replaced and this was one of the reasons the team went straight back down
- What’s his best position? Is there another player with whom we can compare him in terms of style of play?
- He can play centre midfield either on his own or with another. He reminds me of Gerrard or Lampard.
- How did he perform at the 2017 European under 21 Championships? Did he leave a good impression?
He didn’t play too much due to the fact that he hardly played during the previous season at Dortmund.
- Do you think he has the mental strength and physical prowess to be a success in England?
- If Benitez gives him confidence and regular football then Mikel will be the surprise package in the Premier. I’m convinced of it.
- Do you think that Spanish players have enough respect for Rafa that they’ll always listen when he calls? I ask this because it appears that Bilbao were keen on signing Mikel but he’s opted to go and play for Newcastle.
- Mikel has opted for Newcastle because he wants to give the Premier League a go. The presence of Benitez, who was in charge of Osasuna the year Mikel was born, has certainly helped and that goes for Manquillo as well.
All of that’s pretty positive then and I’ve no doubt Mikel will be given a huge welcome at St James’ Park. It looks like we could have a player on our hands and let’s hope his undoubted potential is fulfilled at Newcastle United.
Many thanks to Javi Gómez @JaviGomez41 for his invaluable help with this article.
NORMAN RILEY – Follow Norman on @LikeTheGoat