Usually, when Newcastle sign a player, they have already been linked to him for the best part of a month. Long, drawn-out sagas are a theme on Tyneside; just ask Florian Lejeune.
However, in July of this year, the club and its fans endured a whirlwind of a day. United supporters were stunned when they woke up to see MARCA exclusively reveal the imminent season-long loan signing of Dortmund’s Mikel Merino.
Just a few hours had passed when the Spaniard was pictured with a Newcastle United representative after undergoing his medical examinations.
It was an out-of-the-blue acquisition and not many could have foreseen the impact he would have on the playing field.
Steve Nickson, United’s recently appointed Head of Recruitment, had kept a watchful eye over Merino during the European Under-21 Championship in Poland.
Benitez, unsurprisingly, knew all about the 21-year-old. Merino himself revealed that the gaffer tried to sign him last summer.
Julian Weigl, one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe, kept him out of a terrific Dortmund side that went on to win the DFB Pokal last season. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Newcastle fans got their first look at the new recruit during the 2-0 home loss to Tottenham. Merino made his debut in difficult circumstances, given the team were down to ten men because of Shelvey’s recklessness.
The former Osasuna starlet looked to get on the ball and release it quickly. He was always moving, always. Giving his teammates an option when off the ball and looking to create attacks when on the ball.
He worked with what he had. All in all, he got the fans to notice him.
In the 1-0 loss to Huddersfield, Merino was actually one of Newcastle’s best performers. The team had an off day.
Graeme Souness despicably shamed the midfielder on national television, calling him “weak” and “a joke” after a lapse in concentration contributed to the home side’s winning goal.
It was unsurprising of a man who oddly takes pride in speaking negatively about the club that he took from 5th to 15th during his time on Tyneside.
The way in which Merino reacted to the damning criticism was refreshing and hard to believe from such a young player.
“I heard something but I don’t really take much notice to it,” were his short and precise words when asked to respond to Souness’ feeble comments.
Merino wanted to do his talking on the pitch, and that he did.
The midfield controller was integral to United’s 3-0 hammering of West Ham at St. James’ Park. Merino delivered a masterclass of a midfield display.
He played 2 key passes, made 2 key interceptions, won 3 aerial duels, completed 2 take-ons and was all over the pitch looking to receive the ball.
It was the best midfield performance I have seen a player in black-and-white deliver since the days of Yohan Cabaye. Souness had gone very quiet.
A chant developed in the Gallowgate End that day which essentially pointed out that Merino is “better than Fabregas.” The unknown quantity that arrived in July had instantly become a hero to the fans.
He didn’t stop there. Keeping the ill-disciplined Shelvey out of the team, Merino continued his form in the recent 1-0 away victory against Swansea.
Much of the build up surrounded Renato Sanches, the Golden Boy winner who joined Swansea on a season-long loan deal. Merino slipped under the radar.
From minute one, Sanches was all over the place. Merino, on the other hand, was clever and stopped attack after attack.
He completed the most passes of any player on the pitch (37), won the most tackles (5), made the most interceptions (5) and completed the most take-ons (2)
Yet again, he showed the variety of arrows he has to his bow. Every time you watch him, it is more and more hard to comprehend just how young he is.
At 21, he is the youngest outfield player in Newcastle’s Premier League squad. The best part about his success at United is that there is a “binding agreement” for the club to purchase the Spaniard once he reaches a certain amount of appearances. That fee is believed to be in the region of £7m-£10m.
Every finger belonging to a Toon fan will be crossed in the hope that Mikel Merino makes enough appearances for him to become a permanent member of the current squad. Newcastle have unearthed a real diamond.