Real Sociedad have truly been one of the most beautiful stories of the 2019/20 season of La Liga. Imanol Alguacil’s squad is surprisingly 3rd in the table, playing an easy-to-enjoy type of football, creative and elegant.
Even more impressively, they have accomplished this with, by far the youngest squad in the league. The average player of Real Sociedad is 25.7 years old, which is almost 2 years younger than the average team across the league.
This turned the club playing out of San Sebastián into the home of some of the most raved-about and wanted youth talent in European football. Alexander Isak has turned into a legit goal-scorer in one of the top leagues in Europe, Mikel Oyarzabal has turned into a solid option for the Spain national squad, while Martin Ødegaard has fully developed into one of the superstars of today’s football and one of the most prolific playmakers.
One of the players who often has slipped through the stories and headlines written about Sociedad is Mikel Merino. The 23-years-old who was bought two summers ago from Newcastle has slowly but surely secured himself a spot into the starting lineup. This scout report will look to break down some of his strengths, weaknesses, as well as offer an analysis of his role in the tactics deployed by Real Sociedad.
Mikel Merino is a central midfielder, deployed more towards the left flank, either in the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 systems that Sociedad uses most commonly.
The above image is a graphical representation of Merino’s heatmap for the season. His presence is most predominantly felt in midfield, towards the left flank and in the opponent’s half of the field.
The 23-years-old Spanish midfielder displays most of the qualities you would look for in a box-to-box player. At 1.88 m he is taller than usual for his position, and that often translates into great body strength he could use against some of his counterparts.
His ball control is good and his passing skills are more often than not up to the task. He completes his passes at a 79.2% rate, which by itself is not a good number. Across all midfielders with more than 900 minutes played and an average of more than 50 pass attempts per 90, it would rank him as the 25th player out of 29.
However, his role within Real Sociedad’s tactics often involves quick, first-touch passing. It requires him to receive the ball facing towards his own goal, and look for quick options to build up the attack.
His passes are aimed towards the goal at a 60.6% rate, which is a high number for a player having such an advanced position on the field. He is a more direct passer than some of his peers and he doesn’t get the high-volume and low-risk pass attempts to pad up his stats, which is why his 89.7% accuracy on simple passes is perhaps a number more reflective of his true skill.
Another important characteristic of Merino’s game is his body strength. At 1.88m he is taller than most of his counterparts in midfield, and he can use that to his advantage to dominate them in duels.
That height advantage paired up with his ball control skills makes it virtually impossible for his opponents to tackle him in one-on-one duels, which allows him to play more stress-free.
He is averaging 2.81 offensive one-on-one duels per 90 minutes played, and more impressively, he is winning at a 68.6% rate.
Working to receive the ball
Within Sociedad’s attacking scheme, there is an emphasis on building up quick attacks that would take them into the opponent’s penalty box. To do so, they have to make the best use of the space they find, and it often starts with their midfield.
Mikel Merino’s job is to help make that transition easier, by acting as the link that could connect their back-line to their attacking players.
In order to do his job effectively, he is often asked to find the best way to occupy space and wait to receive the ball, often facing his own goal. From that position, he needs to find the best option available to him and progress the attack by moving the ball into other areas of open space on the field.
In the frame above, he works towards his own goal, by dropping into the space behind the opposing pressing lines and waiting to receive the ball from his goalkeeper.
By informing himself before receiving the pass, he has an understanding of what his options are behind him and how he could get the ball to them. He is not afforded any time to think by the two defenders closing in, and so with two quick moves, the reception using his chest and the pass to follow it, he advances the ball past his markers.
From there, he needs to continue with a run in support of his teammate, who can return the pass to him. Having worked past two lines of defence already, the Sociedad midfielder can now use his new position on the field to set up the second teammate involved in the attack, who is making his run behind them.
In this other instance, he understands the importance of turning himself into a passing option for his teammate who is about to receive the ball, before the ball even gets to him. He is aware of any possible defenders in the area and drops back to receive the next pass.
The pass towards Merino follows immediately, and the 23-years-old receives the ball all by himself. He hangs onto it just until he is able to draw in the three closest defenders, freeing up his teammate down the sideline who he will play the next pass to.
Another important role of Merino in Real Sociedad’s tactics is to relieve pressure from their defensive line when the opponent is pressing high up the field. Merino then needs to make himself an option for the pass for Sociedad’s defenders, be well informed of the positioning of his opponents on the field and look to take advantage of that positioning by moving the ball into areas free of pressure.
In the image above, Merino is dropping towards his line of defence, in order to receive the pass. When running back, he looks briefly over his shoulders to check if he’s followed by any opponent and he can see that he is.
Knowing he will be under pressure as soon as he receives the pass, and by also being aware of where his teammates are aligned relative to his position, he can use it to set a trap for the opponent.
After setting the trap, he plays the quick pass with the outside of his boot, without even looking. He knows it will find his teammate into a great position to advance the attack in open space, by being well informed before even receiving the football.
In this other example, his eyes are still briefly towards his back to check for any opponent following him as he tracks back to receive the pass. Once again, he can see he is followed closely and pressure will follow as he is to receive the ball.
This time around, the pressing side is matching Sociedad’s line of defenders one for one, and he can’t see any easy way out around the sideline either, which is vacated. This will force Merino to improvise.
He hangs on to the ball a little longer, which draws the attention of the pressing line, and all his opponents closer to him. He does this willingly, knowing it will free up space in another area of the field.
He then seizes the opportunity, by passing the ball to his centre-back away from pressure. From that position, his teammate can then look to advance the ball further up the field.
Final third presence
In the 2019/20 La Liga season, Mikel Merino is averaging 6.09 passes into the final third of the field. To place that in some context, his average would rank him as the 13th player out of all who have played more than 900 minutes this season.
His 1.04 PPA (passes into the opponent’s penalty box) would rank him lower, as the 51st player in the league. However, it’s important to note that Merino is not necessarily a playmaker. His job is not to deliver the final pass, but rather the one leading up to it.
His through pass accuracy, at 29.6% for the season, also leaves a lot of room for improvement, but it’s important to note that, again, that Merino is job is first and foremost to set up the transition and find space for his more advanced teammates to operate. He is not a playmaker, but a facilitator.
The picture above is a great example, perhaps the perfect one, of his role within the tactical system deployed by Real Sociedad in attack. Martin Ødegaard, the primary playmaker, is carrying the ball, while Merino is setting himself up to receive the pass.
The ball gets from Ødegaard to Merino, and the young Norwegian is continuing his run behind the two Osasuna defenders. Merino plays the first-touch pass through the two opponents and the ball finds Ødegaard in a position to threaten the box. From there, he sets up another through pass for his striker, and it turns into a goal scored for Sociedad.
While it’s true that he won’t be credited with the assist for this goal, Mikel Merino played a big part in setting his teammate, Martin Ødegaard, in a position free of markers to do what he does best, which is creating for his team.
In another great example of making use of the space around him, Merino settles into the pocket created within the defensive lines of his opponent, waiting to be targeted with the pass.
Receiving the ball with space in front of him to run into, this time he can act as the playmaker himself, and look to set up his teammates inside the box, if possible.
Against such a narrow back-line, he finds just the right moment to send off his pass, able to slip the ball through the out-of-position defenders and heading for his teammate making his run inside the box.
In this other example, he sneaks in behind the two defenders. He sets himself up in open space, knowing he won’t be the first target of the pass because the angle doesn’t allow it.
However, he is there to support his teammate who is about to receive the ball, being the third link in the passing triangle and ready to complete the ball movement by carrying the ball into the final third or looking for a through pass attempt behind the defence.
One other vital role of Mikel Merino in Real Sociedad’s midfield is that of continuing to move constantly to support his teammates with passing options, behind or between the lines of the opponent.
When on the ball, he displays good technical ability and ball control, which allows him to progress with it at his feet rather easily. However, in this tactical analysis that will follow, we will look to break down his off-ball movement, and how is he able to generate movement patterns to maximize his potential support in building up attacks.
In the frame above, the initial passing triangle that could create between the Sociedad players is too wide and far away.
Merino receives the ball facing his own goal, but being informed prior to getting the pass, he knows what his options are. He plays the first-touch pass to his left-back on the sideline and slips by his marker to advance up the sideline himself, in the open area.
He does this knowing if the ball was to advance to the left-winger, he needs to be as open and advanced as possible, to make the following pass easier for his teammate and be in a position to carry it into open space.
Before the ball even reaches Oyarzabal, Merino is positioned down the sideline at a close distance to make the pass an easy task for his teammate. From that spot, he can progress with the football into the opponent’s half of the field and carry on the attack.
In this other instance, he sees the forward his isolated inside the opponent’s half, with the midfield line being too far away from him.
He understands it’s his job to fill up that space in front of him as quickly as possible, to allow for his teammate to pass him the ball and let him carry it forward. He closes that distance in a hurry, and the forward is left with a formality of a pass that finds Merino in a great position to build up the attack from an advanced area of the field.
In the example above, Ødegaard has the ball at his feet and is facing a close defender. From the opposite side of the midfield, Merino takes advantage of the relaxed marker asked to follow him and he runs behind the line in the pocket of space created.
Given Merino’s great movement pattern, Ødegaard can now play the easy pass through the split defenders and find his teammate in a great position right outside of the opponent’s penalty box.
By looking to maintain advanced positions inside the opponent’s half, Real Sociedad is susceptible to counter-attacks when they lose the ball.
For that reason, Imanol Alguacil emphasises the importance of counter-pressuring in his tactics, looking to allow his opponent as little time as possible to advance with their counter-attack and if possible, create turnovers and win back possession.
Mikel Merino plays an important role in making those tactics effective. He is an active participant into counter-pressing after his team loses the ball, and he displays great effort in his pursuit of winning back the possession.
Merino is averaging an impressive 4.21 interceptions per 90 minutes played, in the current La Liga season. 56.3% of those interceptions take place either in midfield or inside the opponent’s final third. Per 90 minutes, he averages an even more impressive 3.6 ball recoveries inside the opponent’s half.
In this frame above, pay attention to his initial position on the field, when his team loses possession. As highlighted, he is far away from his opponents to effectively contest the ball immediately or force a duel.
It’s also important for him to understand that he has a teammate that could support him in pressuring the ball carrier, and he doesn’t need to run himself out of position.
In the blink of an eye, he has closed off all that distance, and more importantly, he has taken the smart route. Instead of directly attacking the ball carrier, he takes the passing option available to him first.
By eliminating the quick pass, he forces the ball carrier into trouble. Now, the duo of Sociedad pressers can team up and take on their opponent in a two-on-one favorable duel, able to win back the ball in a great field position deep inside the final third.
In the frame above, his team loses possession, and as the only option available to counter-press, he gets quickly in a position of depth, covering the passing option closest to him.
He squares up his feet and just stands his ground, waiting for his opponent, the ball carrier, to make a move.
As soon as he reads that the ball carrier has abandoned the idea of passing the ball and instead is looking to progress with it, he sprints out of his stance, closing off the space in the blink of an eye.
Before his opponent can even understand what has happened, Merino has won the tackle and the ball back for his team, in a great position to catch the defence off guard.
This type of effort is visible all throughout Merino’s play. Whether he or a teammate, he likes the opportunity to look for duels to force or passes to intercept, understanding what his role in the counter-press system of his team is.
Defensive contribution and fouls volume
Mikel Merino’s body type is perfect for the role of a defensive midfielder, or a central midfielder with a strong defensive presence. He is tall but lean, able to outmuscle his opponents but also quick and agile enough to effectively play in space.
He also shows, on several times this year, a great understanding of pass patterns and play recognition. This is even more visible when he tracks back and is asked to defend around his penalty box.
In the frame above, Marcelo is attacking the Sociedad defence, reading to pass the ball to Benzema, and continue to run behind his marker. Benzema would pivot the ball back to Marcelo, allowing him to progress with the football at his feet, threatening the box.
Merino is initially not directly involved in the play, but his eyes and brain are still working, picking up on the signals and reading what the two Real Madrid players are trying to do.
The 23-years-old midfielder reacts as soon as Marcelo lets go of the ball and starts his run to receive back the pass. He matches his movement with that of the Brazilian player and is able to win the tackle cleanly, by sliding, just outside of the box.
In this other example, he is tracking back as soon as Jordi Alba, the Barcelona left-back is ready to send away his cross.
The play is supposed to go to the far post, towards Messi, the same player that Merino is supposed to ask.
Merino tracks back in an impressive fashion, displaying outstanding play recognition, able to read Jordi Alba’s intentions and understand where he wants to go with the cross.
He is able to catch up to Messi, tracking him from behind, and at the last moment, in an acrobatic way he clears the ball away from danger, just before it could reach the Argentine’s head.
Despite all of his defensive potential, Merino also displays the tendency of getting too carried away and fouling too often and unnecessarily. His 2.30 fouls committed per 90 minutes played would rank him as the 24th highest average out of all players with over 900 minutes played in the current La Liga season.
The majority of those fouls take place in advanced positions on the field and away from his goal. However, many of them could be avoided if he could show a little more discipline and self-control.
One of the reasons for his high number of fouls is his predisposition to attempt slide tackles. Per 90 minutes played, he is averaging a total of 1.21 slide tackles. This leaves him prone to commit fouls easy for the referee to spot, or even worse, be left out of position and dribbled past.
As in the picture above, he has shown the potential to win more of those slide tackles. In this frame, he takes the perfect angle for the slide to go through clean, and he’s able to get the ball without the referee having any reason to blow his whistle.
He is patient in waiting for his opponent to attempt a move and attacks him head-on, timing his slide perfectly.
However, it’s tackles like in the instance above that cost him. Unlike in the previous example, this time he is attacking the ball from a poor angle, from the side.
Even more importantly, he catches two opponents in the same area, and he doesn’t seem to understand the difficulty of attempting a slide and not fouling at least one of the two. What’s worse is that it all happens right in front of the referee’s eyes.
As expected, the play ends up with not one, but two Leganés players on the ground and the referee is forced to blow his whistle, penalizing Merino for a foul.
The big aspect that can be taken out of studying Merino’s game is that, right now, he’s costing his team in fouls committed a little more than he is able to make up for with great defensive plays. However, it’s impossible not to consider the potential that he offers.
Perhaps, as he continues to cumulate minutes and experience, he will learn to be more disciplined and choose his moments better to avoid unnecessary mistakes, and he will be able to turn some of those fouls committed into tackles won instead.
At 1.88 m tall, Merino is the perfect prototype of midfielders able to contest and win the ball in the air.
For the 2019/20 La Liga season, he is averaging 7.9 aerial duels per 90 minutes played. That number, across all midfielders with at least 900 minutes played, is the highest in the league. He is, more importantly, winning those duels at a 65% rate.
His presence in the air is an important factor in Sociedad’s tactics in defending set-pieces, as well as on their own set-piece opportunities.
Merino averages 0.34 shots with his head per 90 minutes played. Out of those attempts, 38.1% reach the target and he has tallied up a total of 3 goals scored for the season, all with his headers.
His contribution inside his own penalty box, in defending against the opponent’s set pieces, is not be taken lightly either.
As displayed in the frame above, his responsibilities are, for the majority of the time, to defend the central area in front of the goalmouth. He is not asked to mark man-to-man, but rather deploy zone defence tactics.
His job is to position himself to clear away from danger any balls that reach the middle of the box. In moments such as above, where an attacking player comes into his zone of responsibility, he is tasked with matching the opponent in the air.
As highlighted above, he is using his great height, as well as his athletic abilities, to jump higher than his opponent and clear the ball out of the box before the attacking player could reach it.
Still young of an age, Mikel Merino offers room for improvement. He could learn to be more efficient when acting as the playmaker, and defensively, he needs to learn how to tone down some of his high effort, or at least convert it into more tackles won than fouls committed.
However, as this scout report aimed to do, he offers endless potential to continue to make those improvements and take his game to the next level.
So far, having already won the job as the box-to-box central midfielder in Real Sociedad’s squad, what’s clear is that he has started to make a name for himself and has proven already to be one of the most exciting young talents in La Liga.