As the summer transfer window quickly approaches, rumors continue to swirl regarding Athletic Club’s interest in Mikel Merino. The Lions tried to sign him last year but their offer was rejected by Osasuna who chose to sell him to Borussia Dortmund instead. Now that he has barely played for the Germans, Athletic believe they can make the signing happen this time around. It will not be an easy transfer seeing as how BVB have no need to sell, but some are even beginning to wonder if the move is even necessary in the first place.
When Osasuna demanded more money last summer, Athletic decided not to raise their bid. Instead, they put their faith in Bilbao Athletic midfielder, Mikel Vesga, whom they believed had the quality to play for the first team and become an important piece in the squad. Vesga was promoted and even featured in the first game of the season, but went on to play very little over the following months. When the January transfer window arrived, he was sent on loan to Sporting Gijon in search of regular minutes to help his transition to the Primera.
To understand the move, it is important to backtrack a bit. Last year with Bilbao Athletic, Mikel Vesga was dominant. His poise and vision in midfield was vital to Cuco Ziganda’s team and it was clear that he could handle the competition. His ability to win possession, stop opponents, and dictate play was phenomenal and the game seemed to come easy to him. After his promotion he continued to show flashes, but there was something missing. During his games with the first team Vesga looked, well, nervous. The step up in competition was a new hurdle to overcome and a difficult one at that. The most important thing for him was to play regularly and build confidence and comfort against the strongest of opponents. That is exactly what the loan move gave him.
Since leaving on loan, Vesga has performed at a very high level. He has been Sporting’s best player and continues to put in strong showings. The fans of El Molinon have grown to love the midfielder and are going to be really sad to see him leave this summer. Being a regular starter has given the 24-year-old the consistency with which to gain confidence and learn how to just play his game at the top flight. After getting comfortable in the Primera, Vesga is showing the same quality that set him apart last season with Bilbao Athletic.
On Saturday, Vesga put in his best performance of the season. The midfielder provided a wonderful chipped pass to assist on Sporting’s opening goal against Real Madrid, then he scored a beautiful header in the second half to level the score. Other than Isco, Vesga was the best player on the pitch and constantly caused problems for Real Madrid by cutting off passing lanes in the midfield and stopping counter attacks before they could even get started. However, it was his passing ability and poise to keep and cycle possession that stood out. After the game, Athletic fans were understandably singing his praises and it was fully deserved.
Vesga’s emergence has now brought a very important question to the forefront osummer transfer window discussions. Is signing Mikel Merino still a priority?
On one hand, there are already three players sitting in front of Vesga for next season in Benat, Mikel San Jose, and Ander Iturraspe. Mikel Rico and Javi Eraso could remain in the team pas this season, but they could also leave. Regardless, Vesga has competition for playing time. If Athletic also brought in Merino, it would give the Lions one more player who will want valuable minutes. That potential problem looks even worse when you consider the fact that Merino’s number one reason for possibly leaving BVB would be because he wants to play more.
Still, Athletic should not let this keep them from bringing in the former Osasuna man. To begin with, Merino is 4 years younger than Vesga and has higher ceiling as a footballer. Furthermore, the two midfielders have different styles of playing and could occupy different roles for Athletic. When it really comes down to it, the Lions need depth and having both Vesga and Merino would give the squad a stacked midfield to compete across three tournaments.
With Athletic’s Basque only policy, the club has to go out and get the best available talent, especially those at a young age. Just because Vesga has proven himself doesn’t mean that they should pass on a starlet like Merino. Javi Eraso and Mikel Rico could both leave the club this summer, which would open up two holes in the midfield. While it is true that neither has featured much this season, that has more to do with their drop off in talent compared to their teammates than anything else. Replacing them with Vesga and Merino would immediately improve Athletic’s squad and give the team major depth at the most important position. With time, the young duo come become starters alongside one another at the San Mames. For now, Mikel Vesga’s return from loan will feel like Athletic made a big summer signing. Finding a way to bring Mikel Merino to the San Mames would just be the icing on the top of the cake.