If La Liga were based on only the last 10 games, Real Sociedad would be sitting just above the relegation zone in 17th with a measly nine points. They’ve also been eliminated from the Copa del Rey and Europa League in that time. And it’s no surprise that all six of the games missed by midfield general Mikel Merino have come in that run.
With Mikel Merino in the team, Real Sociedad have averaged 1.69 points per game across La Liga and the Europa League. In the six games that he has missed in those competitions, they have averaged 0.67 points per game.
A hamstring injury ruled him out of six games across all competitions from November until mid-December, and concussion has again seen him sidelined over the past week following a clash of heads in the Basque Derby.
The Basque Derby, of course, which was tied at 0-0 when he was forced off after 62 minutes. It then went on to end in a 4-0 defeat.
Part of this lies in the fact that Real Sociedad do not have a like-for-like replacement. Martin Zubimendi is an excellent player with enormous potential, his goal against RB Leipzig on Thursday proved as much, but he is a different mould of midfielder to Merino.
In the first leg in Germany, he was the all-action man in the middle that La Real fans have come to love. Five interceptions and four clearances in defence, but then one key pass in attack. And it wasn’t even one of his better performances of the season.
Merino is a doubt to face former club Osasuna on Sunday, having trained alone on Friday, and Imanol Alguacil will need to make plans to adjust around that. But he may need to think long-term too, as the question must be raised of how long Merino will stick around.
There is no indication that he is unhappy in San Sebastian, but with Real Sociedad tumbling down the La Liga table, a player of his quality cannot afford to be playing without European football as he reaches the peak of his career, with his 26th birthday in June.
Alguacil has a glittering attack full of talent, with the likes of Alexander Isak, Alexander Sorloth, Mikel Oyarzabal, Portu and Adnan Janazuj to name just a few, but their game plan collapses without Merino dominating in the middle of the park.
Few teams are as dependent on one man as La Real are on Merino. If their downfall over recent weeks has proven anything, it’s that an alternative in midfield has to be their top priority if they are to become serious candidates at the top of La Liga.