When Real Sociedad play the friendly in Gladbach on Saturday (3:30 p.m.), Mikel Merino will be an old friend on the field. Borussia “is a team with a lot of quality,” says the former BVB professional, who has been pulling the strings in midfield for the Basques for years.
In an exclusive interview with sport.de the 26-year-old spoke in advance about the goals with Real Sociedad and the Spanish national team and evaluated the transfer of Robert Lewandowski to FC Barcelona. In addition, Mikel Merino explained why things didn’t work out as hoped at BVB.
Mr. Merino, the first week of summer preparation is over. How do you feel?
Mikel Merino: It was extremely nice and hard at the same time because I was able to see my colleagues and friends again after the holiday. After a few weeks of vacation, you’re happy when everyone is back. But it was also tough because we started training to prepare for the season. After all, we need to get strength in our legs.
You already have a preparatory game against Toulouse (0:1) behind you. Real Sociedad were the better team but lost…
It was obvious that they were a little further along in their preparations than we were and had already played more games. At such an early stage of preparation, something like this counts for a lot. Of course you want to win every game, but it was important for us to see what level of fitness we are at and how we can implement our tactics. So it was a very good test in which we saw what could still be improved. Above all, we have recharged our batteries for the season.
Let’s talk about the season: what are Real Sociedad’s goals, what are your goals?
The goals are similar. The club has big ambitions and wants to grow. You can see that in the new signings for the season. We want to get even better and be successful in all competitions, so we want to finish even better in the table in LaLiga, go further in the Europa League than in previous years and reach the final in the cup. Personally, I also want to improve myself and my game and that should be reflected in goals and assists.
They have a very tight program at the start of the season, for example against FC Barcelona and Atlético Madrid on the first four matchdays. Is there a special preparation for these games?
Every game is different, everyone deals with it differently. You prepare differently against top teams that have a lot of ball possession and are individually strong. You get used to it becoming more physical because you don’t have the ball as much. But the pressure and the will to win are always the same.
So there’s no reason to fear Xavi’s new FC Barcelona with all the new players?
We fear nobody, we have the quality to survive against any team. It’s true that Barca have strengthened very well and made plenty of transfers that will raise the level. But we’re in one of the best leagues in the world and we always play against good opponents. We are looking forward to the start of the season and these games.
So it’s more of an anticipation to play against players like Robert Lewandowski who is certainly one of the new top stars in LaLiga…
Yes, exactly, he is a top player. I was lucky enough to play him before when I was in Germany. He makes the difference, has incredible quality and above all: he scores a lot of goals and is always dangerous in the penalty area. He’s been at such a high level for so many years. He will give you a lot.
Let’s talk about your personal development. Head coach Imerol joined Real Sociedad just a few months after you in 2018. What role does he play in your career?
A leading role, for sure. Since he took over, I’ve had an important place in the team. I didn’t play much in my first half, but he gave me a lot of confidence. That’s the best thing for a player, it gives you the peace you need and takes away your fear. That’s the only way you can develop. So I tried to show what he wanted me to show. I am very grateful to Imanol for the trust he has placed in me since day one.
He also formed you into a Spanish international. You now have eleven caps…
Yes, he made me grow. I always had in mind that I wanted to get to this level. When an ambitious and hungry player meets a supportive coach, good things come of it. Luckily I’ve already been able to play a few international matches and I’m looking forward to every new one.
With each passing week, of course, the World Cup in winter is getting closer. Do you already have that in mind or are you just concentrating on your performance at the club?
The national team is always a direct consequence of the performances at the club. All I have in mind now is preparation with Real Sociedad and I want to get the season off to a good start. The World Cup and the national team are a goal, I really want to play there, but it’s not the things I think about or worry about every day.
Let’s take a little trip into the past. Do you still have any memories from April 22, 2017?
April 22, 2017? (laughs) With the date alone, nothing rings for me now …
On that day you entered the Borussia Park in Mönchengladbach for the first time. Gladbach is now your next opponent in preparation next Saturday. Do you remember now? They initially sat on the bench for BVB and came on for Nuri Sahin after 22 minutes. In the end, Dortmund won 3-2.
Yes, now I remember well! It all happened very quickly because Nuri got injured and I came out on the field without really being able to warm up. It was also one of my first games in the first German league. A very, very nice experience.
That game was also your last game for BVB. Why was it that things didn’t work out so well in Dortmund?
In order for a player to grow and for you to develop, many factors have to come together. It wasn’t the best time for me to take the next step. In addition, the coach (Thomas Tuchel, editor’s note) did not give me the necessary trust. So I couldn’t show that I’m at the level that the coach had hoped for me. Nevertheless, I am very happy about my time because I had a lot of great moments. I learned a lot back then and gained indispensable experience. In the end it didn’t work the way I imagined. But I take a lot of positive things with me from my time in Dortmund.
Do you still have contact with the club, with former teammates or with Thomas Tuchel?
Yes, I’m still in touch with some of my teammates from back then. But of course I haven’t been there for a long time. I still have very good memories from this time, during which some friendships were formed.
On Saturday you will now meet some of the Gladbach players you played against in April 2017, such as Lars Stindl, Jonas Hofmann and Yann Sommer. How well do you know Gladbach? How do you prepare for a test match like this?
We’re used to playing against good teams from abroad. Gladbach are a team that has a lot of quality, even though I’m not that familiar with the Bundesliga anymore. We always prepare for such games with great pleasure in order to become even better. This phase is very important for the rest of the year. It’s also always good to play against teams from other countries who have a different style. That will help us later when we are in the Europa League. Such experiences are always important for the future.
The interview was conducted by Gerrit Kleiböhmer