Midfielder | Real Sociedad | Spain
A penniless man’s Xabi Alonso, or a poor man’s Asier Illarramendi. Mikel Merino is a deep-lying playmaker of the typical Spanish mould, who tend to measure in a little taller and pass with a little extra range than the more diminutive creators deployed just in front of them, but 2018 was not a year to suggest he will be following in the footsteps of the Liverpool and Real Madrid icon any time soon.
2018 has been…
A bitter disappointment, especially for a player who lifted the U19 European Championship with Spain in 2015 and continues to represent his national side at U21 level. Out of the three U21 caps earned this year, though, two of them came at centre-half rather than midfield, which typifies how the level of potential Merino’s shown since his younger years has gradually waned, making him an expendable member of what is usually the most important department of any Spanish team.
Injuries have no doubt been a factor with the 22-year-old side-lined for much of this season, but the real concern here is how distinguished clubs from arguably Europe’s three biggest top flights have sought to pass him around over the last 18 months like a plate of poorly-boiled Brussel sprouts at Christmas dinner.
Indeed, in the latter portion of 2017 Newcastle triggered an appearance-based clause to sign Merino permanently from Borussia Dortmund, but that seemed to also trigger the summer signing’s sudden decline, going on to make just eight appearances for the Magpies in 2018 (just two being starts) before finding himself sold to Real Sociedad. The move to Anoeta hasn’t gone too well either - only five starts so far in La Liga and subbed off early (once through injury) in three of those.
Making his way back into the Real Sociedad starting XI on a consistent basis, which won’t be that easy with the aforementioned Illarramendi knocking about in the same squad. Nonetheless, it does give him a direct figure to learn the ropes from, and Merino is at least now in the familiar surroundings of Spanish football - the place where his potential once shined for Osasuna in the second tier.
D - A year of steady regression that leaves Merino in danger of dropping into relative obscurity