It had been an unfortunate start to the season for Newcastle United. In their first game back in the Premier League they came up against one of the standout teams from the previous campaign — Tottenham Hotspur — and in the end they were unlucky to be put into a no-win situation.
The French centre back, acquired from Eibar for just under £9 million, looked like he could be one of the signings of the summer especially given the premium paid for decent centre backs in the current market, but his debut for the club was over before it had barely begun.
The real blow in that first fixture versus Spurs came when Jonjo Shelvey lost his head, stamped on Dele Alli, and was sent off. The visitors subsequently scored two goals against ten men and Rafa Benitez’s side’s encouraging start came to nothing.
Perhaps there was a positive to come out of this mess though as now the petulant Shelvey was suspended, Newcastle had little choice but to call upon their new signing, Spanish midfielder Mikel Merino.
The 21-year-old had found chances hard to come by at his previous club Borussia Dortmund despite impressing when given game time in both midfield and as a ball -laying centre back, but he couldn’t get in the team ahead of Thomas Tuchel’s favourites.
He arrived at Newcastle on loan for a fee of £2.7 million, and the North East club have the option to make the move permanent by paying the Bundesliga side a further £6.5 million. However, this deal is only activated if the player takes part in a certain amount of senior games — thought to be 20 — indicating that Benitez had planned to give the midfielder a reasonable amount of playing time.
If the deal is made permanent it would be another bargain for the club in a climate where you can rarely get a good player for anything under £20 million, never mind 10.
And with Shelvey out, his introduction to the side came early, and it was good that it did.
He’s been compared to Xabi Alonso, and Benitez also sees some shared traits while also pointing out one key difference in the style of the two players.
“There are similarities,” the former Liverpool manager said.
“I will tell you, though it maybe sounds stupid, that they are both Basque – from the Basque country.
“They are similar because of the position they are in and the way they read the game. Alonso’s long passing was better but Merino is more mobile and more dynamic.
“I’ve been tracking him for a while now. We knew him when he was in the Under-21s. He is very dynamic. He is always moving. He has natural composure on the ball.”
During the previous international break Merino was starring for the Spain under-21 side and in their game against Italy he scored one outstanding goal, taking the ball past a defender with ease in the area before finishing coolly, and also assisted another in a 3-0 win.
His first start for Newcastle came in a disappointing result away at fellow newly promoted side Huddersfield Town, but in the subsequent game against West Ham he anchored the midfield in a 3-0 win.
The team’s pass accuracy on that day left a lot to be desired and Merino was no different, but he still managed two key passes from his deep position.
One of his more under-rated strengths is his aerial ability, and he won more aerial duels than any other player on the pitch, including the centre backs, with five.
Since his debut, Merino has now made seven appearances for Benitez's side and the statistics show his importance.
The Spaniard leads the team in tackles attempted and with a team high 3.8 he wins more than anyone who has played over 100 minutes this season. With 2.2 he is only just behind DeAndre Yedlin in interceptions, cementing his place as a defensive rock.
On the ball, no one makes more than his 50.2 passes – completing 75.7%. Shelvey, although he's only played 181 minutes this season, still completes more long passes, with four per 90. Merino isn't far behind though with 2.8.
His 90 minutes against Liverpool was the first full game of the season for the former Swansea midfielder.
It was always going to be interesting on the Englishman's return, just how Benitez was going to combine them both. In their 4-2-3-1, he paired them as a double pivot.
Merino’s extra dynamism could make up for Shelvey’s lack of pace and as the Spaniard is left footed he adds balance alongside the two-footed, but primarily right-footed, Shelvey.
Shelvey's suspension could have been a blessing in disguise for Newcastle as it meant their new man came in earlier than originally planned. By Christmas he should be well on the way to reaching the amount of games required to make the move permanent, but if anyone from Dortmund is watching his performances in England they might be hoping that the clause isn't activated.
It's an unusual move for a club from the usually thrifty Bundesliga to let such a talented player leave for such a small amount.
Further down the line he could be attracting interest from some of Europe's top sides, and his performances for Spain at youth level could soon see him called up to the senior side as a long term replacement for Sergio Busquets, who's now approaching 30.
Once this happens his value could at least triple, but for now Newcastle will simply be happy that he's part of their side as they look to solidify their Premier League status, and the player will be happy that he's finally getting the game time his talent deserves.