Real Sociedad has played scintillating soccer this season, entertaining the San Sebastián faithful week in week out. Mikel Merino has been integral to La Real's recent success, pulling the strings from the heart of midfield. Today, the 23-year-old is one of La Liga's most sought-after midfielders and is now looking to take the next step in his career for both club and country.
Real Sociedad is currently entrenched in a four-way battle for top four, as just two points separate them, Sevilla, Getafe and Atletico Madrid. At an average age of 26 years old, La Real have the youngest side in La Liga and possess an impressive core of talents, eager to propel them back into European football. Merino is but one of these talents.
Merino initially swapped Spanish football for the Bundesliga, joining Borussia Dortmund in 2016. The midfielder struggled to impose himself with the German giants in his first season as a first-team regular, only making eight appearances. He was later loaned to Newcastle United and immediately hit his stride.
Merino impressed with the Magpies, prompting Real Sociedad to swoop in for him in the summer of 2018. Upon his arrival, Merino struck a partnership with Igor Zubeldia. Just a year later, the duo led Spain's Under-21 side to a European Championship.
As a mobile double pivot, Merino and Zubeldia help La Real dominate proceedings in the middle of the park. With Martin Ødegaard in front of them, their midfield is capable of going toe-to-toe with La Liga's best.
A classic defensive midfielder by nature, Merino is extremely active out of possession and regularly looks to break up the opposition's rhythm. His imposing physique ensures his presence is felt in front of the defense, as evidenced by his five aerial battles won per game.
Merino is much more than a destroyer though. Imanol Alguacil has recently deployed Merino further up the pitch, where the 23-year-old has been just as impressive.
Merino thrived in an advanced position in Real Sociedad's semifinal win over Real Madrid, scoring the winning goal after smartly redirecting Alexander Isak's low cross. Freed from the double pivot, the former Newcastle man is constantly on the move, making late, unmarked runs into the box.
It was the Spaniard's lone goal in Copa del Rey action this season, but it was nonetheless crucial, setting up a mouth-watering Basque Derby against Athletic Bilbao in the final. For Merino, emerging victorious against Bilbao is his side's primary concern.
"A title is a title, for the club and for the city. It would be spectacular to win the cup, and if I had to choose between that and top four, I would go for the cup, but we have to push for both," said Merino in a recent interview with Marca.
As reports surface linking Merino with England's giants, the Real Sociedad man will have a big decision to make. At just 23 years old, the midfielder is only in his third season of first-team football and could benefit from another season at the Anoeta. In a familiar surrounding along fellow budding talents, Merino can take the next step in his career in a pressure-free environment.
With 11 games left to play and La Liga's imminent return on the cards, the next step for Merino and co. will be to deliver Champions League football to the San Sebastian. Against Europe's very best, Merino would be able to showcase his ability on the biggest stage. Of course, if he continues to play well, he could find himself on a more well-known Champions League participant sooner rather than later.