Leading into this week, much of the narrative around Sunday’s match between Newcastle and Swansea centered around the Welsh club’s addition of Bayern Munich midfielder and Portugal international Renato Sanches on a season-long loan. The attention was well warranted - Sanches was purchased by Bayern last summer from Benfica in a deal worth €35 million after being named Young Player of the Tournament at UEFA Euro 2016, any by all measures is the type of player for whom a club like Swansea is rarely in the running. It was believed that one of the best performances on the day would be coming from the young midfielder.
As it turns out, one of the best performances did come from a young Iberian midfielder. It came from Mikel Merino.
Newcastle won on Sunday in a match where Merino looked to be in the middle of the action the entire match, leading Newcastle in touches, interceptions, tackles (attempted and won), dribbles (attempted and completed), blocks and fouls. The Spanish youth international also finished third on the club in passes attempted. By comparison, Sanches looked incredibly pedestrian, not making any tackles and leading the match in losses of possession with 10 despite being removed in the 68th minute.
The performance put in by Merino was understandably overshadowed by the heroic shift put in by captain Jamaal Lascelles, but it was certainly Merino’s best match in a string of impressive appearances to start the season. Merino finished second among Newcastle players in touches and passes two weeks ago against West Ham and led the club in both categories the week prior at Huddersfield. Beyond such statistics, Merino has been incredibly positionally disciplined - the map below (attacking right to left) of Merino’s touches in the match is the ideal for a midfielder responsible for holding possession and providing structure to the team, and is almost a carbon copy of the map for his touches against West Ham and Huddersfield.
The qualities that a player like Merino brings to a football club - being active in possession, putting a foot in on tackles and to break up passes, facilitating play and transitioning possession from the back - are entirely unsexy in a sport where highlight packages are dominated by the creativity of Neymar and the raw power of Cristiano Ronaldo, but they’re precisely the sorts of things needed to ensure that Newcastle survive the first season back in the Premier League after a year in the Championship wilderness. They are also the sorts of qualities missing from the squad relegated in 2016.
Like Sanches, Merino is currently on loan from a German power club in Borussia Dortmund, with a compulsive purchase option coming next summer. Merino is still only 21, and If performance holds, his quality and undeniable likability will make the midfielder a fan favorite in Newcastle for a long time to come.
Here are some other quick hitters from the match:
- While the shot numbers are flattering, Newcastle has to be working harder to get better chances when they are in possession in the attacking third. Of the sixteen shots taken against Swansea, 9 were from outside the penalty area and only one, Joselu’s header forcing an outstanding save from Łukasz Fabiański, was from inside the six yard box. Only three of the sixteen shots had an xG value above 0.10 (which is to say, had better than a 10% chance of resulting in a goal) and only five had a value above 0.05 (better than a 5% chance). Possession has not been easy to come by this season, with Newcastle being out possessed in every match this season; the chances generated, then, can’t be squandered if they hope to succeed against stiffer competition.
- Speaking of xG, Swansea won the xG matchup on Sunday 1.49 - 1.13, with a significant chunk of that number coming from Tammy Abraham’s shot that was cleared off the line by a sliding Lascelles. The save by Lascelles has gotten a good amount of attention, and for good reason - the shot by Abraham was worth 0.66 xG, the highest value of any shot in the run of play in the Premier League this week. There’s no such thing as a sure thing, but that shot was about as close as they come, and it took supreme effort from the captain to keep Newcastle from going down in the match.
- We’ve mentioned the performance of Merino at length, but a player who has not had quite as good a go of it in recent weeks is his partner in the middle of the pitch, Isaac Hayden. Hayden finished the match with the lowest WhoScored player rating for Newcastle for the second week in a row and had the fewest touches of any starter beside Ciaran Clark and Jacob Murphy, who was removed in the 58th minute. For a central midfielder, such a low rate of touches is unacceptable. In looking at Hayden’s touch map, it is easy to see what is going on:
Hayden has been all over the pitch since Jonjo Shelvey received his red card, but he rarely looks like a player with an idea of what his role is in the match - in addition to poor touch numbers, Hayden provided no interceptions, no blocks, one tackle (same number as Joselu) and no key passes on Sunday. Hayden has been chasing matches, and some time out of the starting lineup with Shelvey’s return should give him the chance to reset.
- Javier Manquillo’s average position on Sunday at Swansea was in the attacking half of the pitch. He also led Newcastle with three key passes and attempted the fourth most passes, while failing to attempt even a single tackle, the only Newcastle player other than Dwight Gayle to do so. This season, Manquillo has bucked his reputation as a defense-first fullback, making marauding runs down the right. I have a suspicion that this is due to the vacuum Ritchie creates in the attacking right side of the pitch when he roams centrally, a vacuum that Manquillo gets sucked into. I suspect that, if Manquillo is pushed to play on the left as DeAndre Yedlin returns from injury, Manquillo will become more active defensively and less so in the attack.
- Matt Ritchie’s high-footed challenge on Alfie Mawson, which received a yellow card during the match, has been getting significant attention in the aftermath of the match, with many arguing that Ritchie should have seen red for such a reckless challenge. Newcastle has so far not seen an opponent sent off with a red card this season, despite challenges like this one and this one and this one and this one while this challenge by Aleksander Mitrović on Manuel Lanzini two weeks ago received a retroactive red card from a unanimous panel. In fact, Newcastle has not had an opponent sent off with a red card in 95 Premier League matches, the last coming against Norwich in January 2014, so you can forgive us for not necessarily knowing what a red card-worthy challenge is.