As we close the final international window of 2021 and return to domestic competition, Mikel Merino reflects on quite the year, still trying to take it all in. It's been, a year full of achievements for the 25-year-old Spanish midfielder. His team Real Sociedad lead La Liga and even though there's a long way to go, this wonderful Basque club feels confident about the journey. Merino, is cautiously optimistic about the task at hand. For now, everything is about the present.
"Right now we are just thinking about the moment," says Merino, speaking to ¡Qué Golazo! and CBS Sports. 'Thinking about winning La Liga is just not realistic right now for us. We just want to keep doing our job, work hard, improve and focus on what we want to do better. Keep winning. We feel confident. We feel mentally and physically strong, but this tournament is so long that you cannot have a moment to rest throughout the season, because you lose. We just have to think about where we want improvement...and then...we'll talk again in a few months."
We'll return to La Real, but an achievement he can definitely celebrate is his most recent adventure with the Spanish national team, helping La Roja reach the World Cup after an almost perfect qualifying campaign under Luis Enrique.
"I'm very happy and very proud, especially as we know how much it takes to get to a World Cup, as we can see from all the nations who are on the outside looking in, and for how long we have fought for it, super happy for the whole group, and happy for the national team and everyone who have continued to support us throughout," says Merino. "Now, I am just so excited to go and see what we can do."
Playing for the national team is an honor for any player but when you're a Spanish midfielder. In Spain, the midfielder is everything. It's where Picasso paints Guernica or Federico Garcia Lorca writes Blood Wedding. It's where art is created. This is the country of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, David Silva and La Real's very own Xabi Alonso. When you're a midfielder and you're selected, especially under Luis Enrique, it's a coronation and Merino never takes it for granted.
So what's the secret? Why is this position so precious in Spanish football?
"All these guys [Iniesta, Xavi etc] opened the way for us," says Merino. "We watched them when we were little and they were our idols. Everybody wanted to play like Spain. Everyone wanted to be like these guys. The culture started to go that way, the Spanish culture. Even when you're young they tell you, 'keep the ball. The ball is gold. It's so valuable. Keep it and play…' and that's the way we learned and the way we grew up. So I think it's just about the culture. You have to start young and have good trainers in the academy. They teach you the best way to play football and I think that's the secret. There's no special food or special drink to make us play the right way. It's just about starting young."
Youth is the blank canvas but experience is the paint and that's Mikel Merino. At 25, he is not old by any means but when he sees Barcelona's Gavi (17) or Pedri (18), he definitely feels ancient.
"I feel like I am ready to retire because all these kids are coming in and making me feel old! I feel young but at the same time I have the responsibility to help them because I am one of the oldest so it has helped me as well," says Merino, who's been part of the national team setup throughout almost his playing career. "That's why Gavi or Pedri or all these players are in the national team and showing the huge level they have so young. But there is obviously a thing you cannot teach, experience.....I have many years left to go in my career but I have lived through a lot of things, different experiences in different countries and cultures, so I think I can use that and try to help my teammates that are younger than me, using that experience. So for me, that's my part. It's my task."
Merino might be only 25, but his career speaks for someone much older. He has worked under Thomas Tuchel in Borussia Dortmund ("...a time in my life where I was with my eyes open, my ears open, just trying to adapt and have any little information to adapt to my game. Eager.." says Merino) and Rafa Benitez with Newcastle United. In the Premier League, he learned how to be tough. "I'd say that the league teaches you a lot. It's something different than in every other country because of the pace, the intensity and the battles," says Merino. "They're just something different. The atmosphere in every single pitch. The fans go crazy and they make the game even tougher, so my time there was great. I was really happy at Newcastle. I was feeling really at home. So the league was great....back in the Bundesliga, or in training, you don't feel that kind of strength with other players. But in the Premier League, it's something crazy. The pace, the way they go on the floor. They tackle you...the physicality is huge and it's awesome to live it once in a lifetime. You have to experience it. I always speak nicely about the league because it's something you have to live. It's like a movie. So it taught me a lot. Right now I am using it here in La Liga. I try to be physical and win a lot of balls. So I'm sure if someday I have the opportunity to go back I'll be ready for it because I already know what that league is all about."
Under Luis Enrique, he learns under another legendary midfielder. "You have to pay attention to the details that he wants to change from the way I play, but he is a coach with a big personality. He tells you exactly what he wants," he says.
Now, he has La Real's Imanol Alguacil, a man he truly admires. "When you get to know him you can see he's a really, really good man," says Merino. "Not only in training, not only as a professional but as a person, he tries to help you every single time and he thinks about us the whole time. The whole time worrying about how we are, how we can get better, not only in football but also in life...But he's also a great head coach, he has a lot of qualities he has given us since the first day, the tools for us to be a good team. And he's always giving us the confidence to get better, so I think he's the perfect coach for this club and he has Real Sociedad in his heart. There's nobody like him for this job."
Real Sociedad is a special club, from a special region in Spain. It's San Sebastian, Basque country. The football club lives within a city of pride, culture and a sense of belonging that can only be found among people who care about you. That's Real Sociedad. It's special. From the academy to the senior team, it prioritizes values above football. Championships will come but respect for your surroundings must be eternal.
"When I came back here (Spain) from the Premier League, I found exactly what I wanted to find. I'm from Pamplona and this is a similar region," says Merino. "It's really calm, the people are really nice, the food is awesome. The gastronomy is unbelievable, and that's something I love. But it's just the mentality they have and the culture in the club. The way they treat the youngsters, the way they put so much importance on the young kids, for them to learn the right way of playing football," says Merino.
"Not only playing football but the right way to grow up and have the values of a big person. That's the main thing and that's why so many players are coming to the first team very young and doing a great job and for us, who come from the outside, it's so easy to adapt because everybody is so kind and so nice that you just feel at home."
The focus on youth that Merino talks about can be seen throughout the squad. The average age is 26 and only three members of the squad are above 30. The captain, Mikel Oyarzabal, is 24. It's not about age here. It's about knowledge.
It's also about Basque pride. Winning the 2019-2020 Copa del Rey last year, for example, against their fiercest rival Athletic Bilbao, was massive. "They [the fans] want us to win those games more than any other. So for us it was a huge, huge game," says Merino. "We were under a lot of pressure. It was not only a title in the middle but a title against your biggest rivals so it was a very tough situation and for us to have the guts to win the game and put our names in history is very huge for the team, for the club and for the entire culture. So we're really, really proud and happy."
The final had to be delayed by a year due to the pandemic and the celebrations with fans even longer, but for Merino, the satisfaction of winning sweetened the mood for everyone. "All the wait, all the expectations, when you finally win, all that is heavy on you and then you feel free."
Merino is an articulate speaker. We could have done this interview in Spanish but he chose English as he wants to keep improving, but it's very, very good. He says he learned it while watching Suits (Harvey is his favorite character) and playing in Newcastle. Yes, he's happy he didn't develop a Geordie accent. He is a deep thinker who cares about the game but most importantly, the people behind it. Every question is delivered with care. He has the skills to be a presenter or analyst but he calls it another world, he wouldn't even know where to begin.
There goes that modesty again.
Almost every response is a compliment about another teammate as opposed to himself so I have to push him to be selfish. But much like his game, he's not one to take the limelight all for himself.
Pass and move. Help the team.
Having Xabi Alonso in the club is an honor he says. The former midfield star continues to learn his trade, managing Real Sociedad B and Merino respects the meticulous path taken by one of Spain's greatest players. "You only have to see the time he was playing to know he has a very bright mind," says Merino."
Finally, we return to Real Sociedad and their title ambitions. How far can this side go? Can they dethrone the trifecta of Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid? Can they also make a deeper run in the Europa League this year?
"I think we have to be humble...," says Merino. "Try and keep pace in the Europa League, try to maybe take a step forward and play Champions League next year but obviously we have to be humble and put our focus on the next game, just game by game, or day by day, trying to improve, trying to get better. I think that's gonna be the right way to achieve our goals, but right now we have to think about this moment."
There was much, much more to talk about with Mikel Merino. From his views on American talent in Europe and Spain to his teammate, the illustrious young Swedish striker Alexander Isak, so I implore you to watch the whole interview on ¡Qué Golazo!'s YouTube channel.