Newcastle United were criticised by a large section of the media for their perceived lack of business during the summer transfer window. Rafa Benitez was open with his feelings about the team’s recruitment, but they did manage to improve the squad of the squad after promotion.
The Magpies’ boss has always had a good eye for a player and he has proved that he can compete on a budget before. Mikel Merino was a low-key addition, arriving from Borussia Dortmund on an initial season-long loan, but there is a clause to make the deal permanent for £6.5 million if he plays a certain number of games.
If that report is correct, it would be a great piece of business for Newcastle as the 21-year-old has already shown himself to be capable of performing well in the Premier League. His value has already increased significantly after the first two months of the season and Dortmund may regret agreeing to the clause. Merino started the season out of the first-team, but Jonjo Shelvey’s red card afforded an opportunity to the Spaniard and he hasn’t looked back. He is a perfect fit for the side, as he is excellent at winning possession back and his intelligent distribution often launches a counter-attack for the Magpies.
It has been his reading of the game and aggressive style that has won him a lot of fans in the Premier League. The Spaniard is averaging 3.35 successful tackles and 2.34 interceptions per ninety minutes, out-performing N’Golo Kante who is seen as the best ball-winning midfielder in the Premier League. The Chelsea man is currently averaging 3 successful tackles and 2.29 interceptions per ninety minutes. According to Whoscored, no player has won possession more times than the Newcastle midfielder (35) in the midfield third.
As a newly-promoted club, Benitez recognises Newcastle’s limitations and the signing of Merino has facilitated a style of play that suits the team. They look to play without the ball and let the opposition have possession, with the aim of winning it back high up the pitch to play on the counter. For this to be effective, they need to have midfielders that can win the ball back in dangerous areas and the 21-year-old is superb at doing that. The recent match against Liverpool was a test of how good the midfielder is and he passed with flying colours, winning back possession on eight occasions. This was more than any other player on the pitch.
Merino is an intelligent footballer, who does a lot more than only win possession. He has more to his game than most ball-winning midfielders as he is effective in possession and very important to Newcastle in transition. Since the beginning of the season, he has averaged 35.8 forward passes and 13.38 backward passes per ninety minutes. This underlines his forward-thinking approach and that he wants to be positive in his distribution. He rarely picks the wrong option and to pass back is a last resort for the 21-year-old. Benitez will be encouraged by this as his side needs to be rapid in transition for the current tactic to be effective. In Merino, he has a player that understands the way that he wants the team to play and for a 21-year-old, the tactical mind of the midfielder is very impressive.
There is a lot more to come from the midfielder. He has yet to contribute a single goal or an assist, but he certainly has the ability to improve his attacking influence. Merino is still adapting to the Premier League and that makes his current performance level all the more impressive. Newcastle supporters will be delighted that the Spaniard is all but confirmed to sign on a permanent basis as he is a player that Benitez can build the team around for the future.