Rumours were buzzing for quite a while. Now Borussia Dortmund made it official. The first addition to their 2016-2017 squad is Mikel Merino, a 19-year-old midfielder from Segunda División side CA Osasuna.
When looking for signings during the winter transfer window, a possible link between Merino and the Bundesliga club appeared for the first time in a few media reports. Apparently, Dortmund made an offer to sign him immediately, but Osasuna, aiming at a return to the Primera División, refused to sell him in January. Negotiation talks continued, and Merino eventually signed a contract until 2021, with Osasuna receiving a payment of 4m Euros in total.
— Borussia Dortmund (@BVB) 15. Februar 2016
Of course, Merino is not on the same level of Óliver Torres or Yunus Mallı, who also aroused Dortmund’s interest, yet. Nevertheless, his résumé speaks for itself. He won the under-19 European Championship with Spain in 2015, being part of the starting line-up in every game. Since the beginning of the 2014-2015 season, Merino has been playing in the majority of Osasuna’s matches.
Being only 19-years-old, the central midfielder has already established himself among many other highly talented players. As a student of the Spanish school of football, he, of course, presents technical skills that could help him to adapt to Dortmund’s style of play fairly quickly.
Merino is by no means an adequate replacement for İlkay Gündoğan, yet he has almost all the attributes to do the legwork for his team in the middle of the park. Even though we don’t know what Thomas Tuchel’s exact plans are, at first Merino could probably serve as a back-up player for the likes of Julian Weigl and Nuri Şahin, if not challenge them for their spots in the pecking order.
What are his strengths and weaknesses? Standing 6 ft 2 in tall, he clearly has the appearance of a physically impressive holding midfielder, underlined by his style of actively forcing one-on-ones. Usually, he doesn’t allow opposing players to turn around, as he tends to pressure them right after they received the ball. In Osasuna’s system that put emphasis on quick turnovers and offensive transition plays, Merino characteristically tries to immediately pressure opponents, not waiting to use guiding pressing motions to force turnovers as part of a longer process.
It would be a mistake to overlook other portions of Merino’s skill set, though. In ball possession, he can become a playmaking midfielder, whose focus is on long-range passes and deep through-balls, mostly attempting to bypass opposing lines as fast as possible. This aspect of his game can give him a pivotal role in his team’s attack or make him a liability due to the possible amount of quick turnovers. In the build-up to next season, when Tuchel will teach him the ins and outs of Dortmund’s tactical approach, Merino will have to tone it down to some extent.
More importantly, his positional awareness is in need of improvement. In central midfield, Weigl has raised the bar in terms of positional play and in terms of how to balance out his team-mates’ movements. Merino tends to get lost in the middle of the field if he is not able to find an opposing player as fixpoint and target for defensive actions. Zone coverage, however, is a crucial element of Dortmund’s system.
Signing a highly regarded Spanish talent for a transfer fee of less than 5m Euros is a great piece of business. Even though it is highly unlikely that Merino will become Dortmund’s dominant midfielder immediately, he has great potential and a high ceiling. And this is what this transfer is all about.