“I like to think I’m one of the best”: Mikel Merino of Real Sociedad

Madrid (AFP) – “He’s the best player in the league,” Real Sociedad coach Imanol Alguacil said in September after his side had just beaten Granada to finish third in La Liga, three points behind Real Madrid.

He was not talking about the league’s top scorer, Karim Benzema, or Luka Modric, his only remaining Ballon d’Or winner.

He was not referring to any of Barcelona’s dazzling young talents like Ansu Fati or Pedri, or even Luis Suarez, 34, who had won the Atletico Madrid title a few months earlier.

And if there was the slightest suspicion that he had been momentarily carried away, carried away in hyperbole in the joy of victory, a month later, Imanol hammered the point.

“I have said it before and will say it again in case it is not clear,” he said.

“Mikel Merino is the best player in La Liga.”

At that point, Real Sociedad were no longer behind Real Madrid but above them, a victory over Osasuna leaving them at the top of the table for a fourth consecutive week.

After scoring the first goal, the 25-year-old Merino came to rest with his palms raised, in tribute to the club from his hometown of Pamplona and the one who gave him his professional debut, at 18.

Merino has since been at Borussia Dortmund and Newcastle three years ago, returning to Spain with Real Sociedad. This quarter, the midfielder has been the most outstanding player in a team that has arguably been the history of the season.

Does he feel like the best player in Spain?

“Every year I feel better and more important and to be honest yes I feel – well I’m not going to say the best in La Liga – but I like to think I’m the one of the best, ”said Merino. AFP. “That’s the confidence you need to have, otherwise how are you doing?” “

Imanol’s praise will be polled on Saturday if Merino, the number eight left-handed Real Sociedad slalomer, manages to overcome a calf problem to face Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos.

Real Madrid took a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga, but third-placed Real Sociedad seemed as likely as anyone to keep pace, with the opportunity now to prove it at Reale Arena.

“Being the best or whatever it is right now, honestly, we don’t care,” Merino said.

“There are always times when your legs are working better or your head is clearer, so what we said is that a bad streak will almost certainly come – it’s impossible to keep the same pace all season – that’s okay, but we want it to be as short as possible. “

However, there is not much normal about Real Sociedad, the club aiming for 60% of their first team to come from their local province of Gipuzkoa and where 16 of the current squad are from. of the youth system.

Their former midfielder Xabi Alonso is in charge of the B team while Imanol has played and coached both the B team and the first team.

Merino played for Borussia Dortmund and Newcastle before returning to Spain with Real Sociedad ANDER GILLENEA AFP

“Since Imanol’s arrival he’s made it clear what he wants. The way he conveys his ideas means he’s getting the best out of us,” Merino said.

“And the other reason we are doing so well is the academy. We have a well balanced team, with a few foreign players bringing things that the players here don’t have, but also local players, who make the fans proud. “

Merino is somewhere in between, not a product of Zubieta, the famous Real Sociedad training center, but hardly a foreigner either, having grown up just 80 kilometers away.

“I’m from Osasuna and there’s a similar idea out there on how to educate players and kids. People have similar values ​​- to be humble, modest, hardworking – this environment they live in is very similar.

“So even though I’m not from Real, coming here was like coming home.”

Merino also brings knowledge of his spells in England and Germany, where he played under Rafa Benitez for Newcastle and “mathematic” Thomas Tuchel, now of Chelsea, in Dortmund.

“Tuchel has always been very methodical, with very specific ideas,” said Merino.

“He insisted on the importance of having the ball, of keeping it, of playing the single pass, in the right place with the first touch in the right direction and with the right foot … When you’re young, you don’t not realize it but these details make the difference. ”

Merino’s year at Newcastle has proven to be formative even though he hasn’t had the opportunities he would have liked.

“Yeah, damn it, I learned a lot in the Premier League,” he said. “How to use your body, how to go into battle, how to deal with so little time with the ball.

“When I was there I was 20 or 21 and at that age you’re like a sponge, you absorb everything. Those details in so many ways made me who I am.”

What does he think of Newcastle now, under their new Saudi owners?

“It’s big, things will change, it’s a turning point for the club, not just because of the money but because they now have owners with real ambition, who want to make Newcastle winners” , did he declare.

“There is obviously a lot of work to be done but they are on their way.”

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