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Mikel Merino won a lot of fans on Tyneside with his displays last season, providing a solid defensive grounding for the Newcastle United midfield.
However, his performances also caught the eyes of teams back in Spain, with Real Sociedad coach Asier Garitano saying that a deal is almost done to take the 22-year-old to San Sebastián.
Merino has other clubs circling though, the youngster finding himself an Athletic Club and Sevilla transfer target as well, so one way or another it seems like he’s played his last game at St James’ Park.
With the bottom half of the Premier League seeming tighter than ever, the Magpies could use someone to replace him – but who?
Considering the options
Merino is so popular because he’s able to both win the ball in midfield as well as progress it up the field, either through passing or dribbling (he averages 1.94 take ons per 90, the seventh highest rate among midfielders in the Premier League last season).
He’s also heavily involved in build-up play and chips in terms of chance creation as well, making 0.93 open play key passes per 90. Such a skill-set isn’t common, which is why he could be so hard to replace.
Two names that Newcastle have been linked with are Lille’s Thiago Maia and Stoke City’s Badou Ndiaye. The two share some similarities with Merino’s game, but neither is a perfect like-for-like.
For Stoke, Ndiaye has been more of a tough-tackler – he made 4.18 tackles and 1.02 interceptions per 90, whereas Merino’s split was a slightly more even 3.75 and 2.41.
However, look at his first half of the season for Galatasaray and he’s more of a similar player.
His tackling/intercepting split is virtually identical as at Stoke – in the first half of 2017/18 he made 3.05 tackles per 90 compared to 0.73 interceptions – but he was more involved in overall play.
Similarly to Merino, he can advance the ball up the field, rolling his body past defenders as he receives the ball to break into space or spotting good passing options.
Meanwhile, Maia has been more of a defensive-minded metronome for Lille, making more passes per game but fewer defensive actions.
Some other suggestions
Newcastle have been linked with a loan move for Ruben Loftus-Cheek, a generally different type of midfielder to Merino. Although the Chelsea man has played deeper during his career, he appears to have evolved into a more offensive-minded player of late with Crystal Palace and England.
His addition might signal a change in the way Newcastle line-up, or perhaps an alteration of roles for both Loftus-Cheek and Jonjo Shelvey.
Alternatively, there is Jean-Philippe Gbamin, whose game has been extremely stylistically similar to Merino’s.
Gbamin has been performing well for Mainz this season, which is a positive for Newcastle as it proves his quality, but a negative in that it has linked him with other clubs, such as Arsenal.
Then there is Diadie Samassekou, a 22-year-old with RB Salzburg. Samassekou is a similarly high-volume defensive player in central midfield, while also contributing to build-up play and chipping in going forwards – he contributed 1.73 shots per 90 minutes through his own chances and ones he set up last season.
While perhaps not as talented as teammate Amadou Haidara, he is also more likely to be available. Haidara is expected to fetch a hefty fee when he leaves Salzburg in the near future and has been linked to several big clubs.
Samassekou will have been trained in the same system as Haidara though, bringing many of the same qualities at a more affordable price.
Whoever the Magpies do bring in, they might want to negotiate harder on the release clause in their contract. Merino’s release clause, rumoured to be between £10-13million, was reportedly a requirement of him signing for Newcastle at all, but the hierarchy at St James’ Park appear to have rolled over easily and without proper planning for who to bring in if and when Merino moved on.
The Spaniard is hard to replace, but it’s possible. The harder thing might be making sure that his replacement sticks around.