Juan Manuel Lillo once said, “Tell me who your midfielder is, and I’ll tell you what team you are.” The truth in one sentence, delivered by the legendary, current Atlético Nacional manager. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the midfielder is the most important player on the pitch, because each man plays his part in helping his team target their priority: win.
Still, why does Lillo’s conjecture hold so much weight today? Simply put, the “mediocentro” is the man who defines the style of play. In this position, the player must focus on helping his 10 other teammates, his 10 passing options, instead of himself. He lives in the center of the pitch, where each component of the team–the fullbacks, the strikers, the center backs–meet. There are many players who fit this designation–some are household names, some are cheap throwaways who never reached their potential, and some are just now beginning to establish themselves amongst the elite. In the last category, you will find a young boy from Pamplona, Spain by the name of Mikel Merino.
Merino is a footballer who, at just 21, understands the rarest, hardest-to-master facet of football: controlling the midfield. He has the answer to each question–where to play it, when to pass it, how to play this particular ball, and why. He is a special breed. Every play his team makes is a consequence of his actions–a cutting pass, a blind-side run, a long dribble.
However, anyone could doubt his “reading comprehension” if they only saw him during his time with Thomas Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund. Still, there is an explanation: his position. Mikel Merino is a midfielder, and while Tuchel tried to develop his a center back, he rose to fame in Osasuna in midfield, be it as an interior or as a pure defensive midfielder.
At 21, it’s still too early to determine what midfielder he will become, but his strengths suggest that he must play in the base of midfield. This is where he is best equipped to think after his 10 teammates, where he feels most comfortable, and where he can both maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. It’s natural for him. Since Merino is a dynamic footballer–he has the stamina to constantly move around, be it popping into the penalty box for a shot or helping out in defense-he often performs as a box-to-box midfielder. His stamina allows him to show off his physique, to cover more ground, but his positioning is the greatest treasure in Merino’s skillset. Mentally, he’s a class above the rest–everywhere he has played, be it Osasuna, Dortmund or Newcastle, the fans marvel at how such a young player can play with so much leadership, character, and cojones.
One of his best traits is his ability to regain possession. His game is not just about knowing where to be, but anticipating movement, knowing when to back off, step in, and win and redistribute possession. His priority is to find his teammate in space, and we see this constantly; for example, in the friendly against Italy’s U-21 team (September 1, 2017), he steals the ball off an Azzurri player, turns, and breaks the lines with a vertical pass for Borja Mayoral to convert.
His wand of a left foot gives him a variety of options: he changes the volume of the attack, he settles and dictates the flow of possession, and he breaks the lines and progresses attacks, with the intention of giving his teammate the ball in a free area. While his technique is not the best, it will improve in a league that demands precision and calmness under pressure.
This summer, he came to England, a place where he can settle down, and most importantly, find his niche. The Premier League is a league where young footballers come to define their positions on the pitch, and Merino will soon discover if he is an interior midfielder or a pure defensive midfielder. In England, the box-to-box role is more vital than ever, a role that Mikel enjoys, because it does not limit him, but allows him to dribble past midfielders, unexpectedly appear in the box, and shoot.
In Newcastle, he will not only discover his best role, but harden his skills as well. I liken him to Xabi Alonso, who, in Real Sociedad, was a free-roaming interior, but in Liverpool, showed signs of becoming a pure defensive midfielder. In Real Madrid, he shined in this holding role, and he would play there until the very end of his career. Mikel’s evolution may be similar–from the midfield role, to the reading of the game, to the exclusively Basque style–but time will tell if it reaps the same results.
The comparisons don’t just end here. At St. James’ Park, he will be trained by Rafa Benítez, a coach who perfectly understands his language–as well as Castilian, who knows how to harden his skills, and who will build the team around him, as he offers the balance Benítez so desperately seeks. Above all, Merino will find the consistent gametime that he could not get in Dortmund. Maybe in a few years, in an interview, Merino will reveal how important this spell in his career was for his development.
In the first few weeks of the season, Merino has lined up in a double pivot with Isaac Hayden, where the the Basque midfielder has demonstrated why he is considered “the next Xabi Alonso.” He offers balance and defensive solidity, but also threatens from quick counterattacks, due to his spectacular close control, his vision, and his surprise movement from in behind.
The footballing world needs a new Xabi Alonso. The footballing gods have chosen the heir to the throne.
By: Hovannes Marsuian/@HMarsuian_
Translated by: Zach Lowy/@ZCalcio