Mikel Merino – The one that got away from Newcastle United
After securing promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt in 2017, Rafael Benitez was faced with the challenge of building a team capable of establishing itself in the top flight.
Budgets, as they have usually been under Mike Ashley, were inevitably tight, and one of the signings that Benitez was able to make was a little known Spaniard called Mikel Merino.
Merino was brought in, initially on loan from Borussia Dortmund, having struggled in his first season in Germany.
Prior to signing for Dortmund, Merino had previously impressed with Osasuna in the Spanish second division, as well as winning the UEFA European U19 Championship with Spain in 2015.
After a relatively slow start to life on Tyneside, Mikel Merino found his feet.
Built in a similar mould to Hugo Viana, Merino demonstrated a cultured left foot, a good work rate and a general commitment to the cause.
After making a number of early season appearances, Newcastle were able to invoke a clause in their loan deal with Dortmund to make the move permanent and Merino celebrated this success by scoring an excellent header in a 1-0 home victory over Crystal Palace. That victory moved Newcastle up to seventh place as they made an excellent return to the Premier League.
However, that was about as good as it got for Mikel Merino and Newcastle that season. After the win over Palace, Benitez’ side wouldn’t win for another nine matches, losing eight of those games as we were dragged into a relegation scrap. A back injury temporarily disrupted his season and he struggled to recapture his early season form, particularly as a good partnership between Mo Diame and Jonjo Shelvey formed in the centre of Newcastle’s midfield.
After that season, Real Sociedad activated a release clause in Merino’s contract and he was on his way back to Spain after just one season in England.
While many Newcastle fans recognised Merino’s huge potential, I think there was a general acceptance that his form had tailed off significantly after a promising start to his time at the club, and few tears were shed over his departure.
Mikel Merino has thrived back in Spain.
Despite a frustrating groin injury he enjoyed an excellent 2018-19 season, making 32 appearances, scoring four goals and claiming five assists.
He continued to improve in a Covid-19 interrupted 2019/20 season, making 43 appearances in all competitions and scoring six goals. The only aspect of his game that didn’t progress was his number of assists, claiming just one in the season. However, he played a much deeper role during his second season to accommodate the talents of the on-loan Martin Odegaard.
Merino has continued to play a pivotal role for Sociedad in 2020-21, enjoying two major career milestones. In August 2020 he was called up for the senior national team for the first time, making his debut in the UEFA Nations League against Germany and has now made six appearances for his country.
He also secured the first major trophy of his career, winning the delayed 2019-20 Copa Del Rey final with Merino playing the full 90 minutes in a 1-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao.
In the years since he left Newcastle United, Mikel Merino has proved himself to be the wonderful talent that he always had the potential and talent to be, it will be fascinating to watch how his career develops in future seasons.
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