Newcastle's efficient completion of the Merino deal only magnifies frustrations after lacklustre summer
If there was a saving grace during another needlessly dark, concerning and momentum-sapping summer transfer window at Newcastle United, it was the capture of Mikel Merino. The Spanish midfielder joined from Borussia Dortmund on an initial season-long loan with an obligation to buy; a deal proving The Magpies do have a plan in place at St James’ Park.
That they didn’t, in a nutshell, was the worry. There need be no review of a precarious offseason, everybody knows the score; Benitez found targets to work to a brief given to him by owner Mike Ashley, only to rip up his scouting reports and start afresh when it became apparent that promises may be broken.
It felt as though the best manager for years on Tyneside was being taken for a ride, but the fact that Newcastle are ninth in the Premier League with ten points from seven games is a true testament to Benitez and his staff’s ability to work under any circumstances.
But in the midst of deals taking overtime or even failing to reach completion at all, one summed up what Newcastle had hoped everything would be like. Merino was taking his medical before news broke of a possible move; not many knew much about him, but he was a Spain under-21 international who had performed at the summer’s European Championships and someone Dortmund had fought hard to sign a year earlier.
He was down on his luck in Germany, but it soon became clear that only Benitez’s influence could lure him to a club of Newcastle’s current standing. Competition for his signature was barely an issue; the board fought hard to get him ahead of Athletic Club in Spain. It was so swift and satisfying, leaving questions as to why that hadn’t been the status quo all summer.
For all the negativity Ashley has brought to Newcastle United over the years, there have been some examples of his flair with negotiation, even if he hasn’t been the one sitting down to discuss deals; Merino is one of those cases.
Newcastle were wary of repeating the situation with Loïc Remy in 2013; the Frenchman signed on loan from Queen’s Park Rangers and fans were originally led to believe the deal would become permanent. That was not the case, and 13 Premier League goals later, he joined Chelsea after it became apparent he had no desire to extend his stay under Alan Pardew.
Every good performance Merino has put in this season, which is every single game truth be told, has only benefitted Newcastle and there were no worries of other teams taking a shine to him. Typically efficient, in regards to this deal, Newcastle paid the rest of the fee to Dortmund and the 21-year-old penned a five-year deal on Friday morning.
It is early days yet, but there is a feeling that Newcastle have found one of the bargains of the summer already; Merino cost just €8million and in a world where transfer fees are heading north at an alarming rate, there can be no complaints.
With his passing, positioning and calmness on the ball way beyond his years, Merino has made a similar impact for Benitez as Xabi Alonso did when he joined Liverpool in 2004, adding a crucial ability to transition defence into attack. That allows Newcastle to remain compact and, heading into Sunday’s clash at Southampton, it will give them half a chance of coming away from St Mary’s with a result.
Traditionally, heading so far south has not done Newcastle much good. Southampton have relished their opportunities at home game against The Magpies for years before they moved away from The Dell and to St Mary’s early this century.
Since the Saints returned to the Premier League in 2012, their rapid rise and Newcastle’s slow collapse towards relegation, has seen form comply with history.
Back to back 4-0 defeats were followed by a 3-1 loss on the last visit. Some very good attacking players, and managers have been in place at one of the most forward-thinking, ambitious clubs in England; their academy and scouting structure have helped build very good teams, but such is the way in football, they have failed to keep the majority of them.
A constant stream of quality replacements appears to be drying up; they don’t appear to be the force they once were.
Cracks began to show under Claude Puel last season, despite an eighth-placed finish and a cup final appearance. The turgid football was a far cry from what had come before and scoring goals has been a problem since Ronald Koeman left for Everton.
Mauricio Pellegrino, Benitez’s former lieutenant at Valencia, has picked up the pieces but, so far, not much has changed. Just five goals scored this season suggests a low scoring affair and one that is very much there for the taking.
Talent is still within the squad at Southampton; Nathan Redmond and Charlie Austin were one-time Newcastle targets, Fraser Forster is one of a few successful academy graduates on Tyneside and Virgil van Dijk has been the talk of the town for months.
But if ever there was a time to put things straight on the South Coast, it is now. Newcastle fans woke up to some fantastic news on Friday morning: Mikel Merino signed a 5 year deal at Newcastle.
He is the kind of player most clubs would love to sign, the kind Southampton have made their trademark over the last five years.
The way it has been done has been refreshing but leaves everybody wondering why this reactiveness has not been a consistent feature of the club’s recent transfer business.