Francisco Merida Perez. The excitement was evident especially when those barely followed the youth and reserves were excitedly rubbing their hands in expectation. Arsenal had just signed a player who had apparently been rated more highly than Cesc Fabregas, a player who was (and is more so than ever) the nucleus of this young Arsenal team at the ripe, old age of 19.
With a cloud of confusion between UEFA and FIFA concerning rules over the transfer of youth players, with the latter prohibiting the international transfers of U18s and the former allowing it in exceptional circumstances, which for most Champions League sides such a rule applies on all occasions. Thus Arsenal again exploited the loophole and was helped by the fact that promising youth players cannot sign a professional contract until 18 in Spain. In shady circumstances, Merida left the Barcelona academy months before his 16th birthday and signed for Arsenal under the advice of Joseba Diaz, also the agent of Fabregas. At London Colney, he improved various aspects of game, which were already acquired from the £7 million academy at Barcelona. An experience of the continental way of playing certainly bodes well, especially if one considers the unique brand of football Arsenal play. Compare the player to Theo Walcott, who started playing the beautiful game relatively late, and it appears that the majority of his youth football exploited his pace and focused on competitiveness, rather than look to improve his weaknesses.
While Theo has great potential as we have seen in a number of his appearances (where he has been played out of position), his footballing intelligence is relatively poor, while the majority of foreign players can quickly select the most promising option to advantage their side. Therefore players like Rooney, who has extraordinary footballing intelligence, are extremely rare to find in England. On personal evidence, I have seen Merida play thrice at the Emirates, with the former two appearances in the FA Youth Cup, where he dictated the play from deep, playing as a base, which the youngsters used to keep possession, in an almost Pirlo-esque manner. He rarely ventured forward in the matches but in most cases kept the attacking impetus to the home side. This appeared to be similar to Fabregas’ early Arsenal career, where having scored 30 goals a season in the Barca youth team, he played from deep, and only recently where having bulked up, he started adding goals to his already large tally of assists. I see Merida progressing in a similar way, perhaps even quicker. The player himself has a stocky build, allowing him to shield the ball to find enough time to spot and execute a pass. In a similar fashion to Fabregas, he does not have great pace, but he overcomes this with a strong positional sense. Merida, is predominantly left footed, and thus can adopt the position of an unconventional winger similar to either Hleb or Rosicky, where vision, awareness and quick feet aid the attacking cause.
As one tabloid claimed his lack of mobility and pace are said to be his downfall, yet this is just seen as a sensationalized twist by a newspaper which has little or no credibility at all. Therefore a £2.1 million fine for one of the most promising youngsters in the world is seen to be perfectly reasonable, considering Barcelona’s state of the art youth academy and the training Merida, an Atletico fan, received. Compare this to a scapegoat of many fans in Alex Song. Playing as a relatively composed central defender now, he once was ridiculed at half time in a 2-1 defeat at Craven Cottage, almost cursing Arsene Wenger in signing a £2.8 million flop. In comparison to this Merida looks to be a bargain, with Song improving to such an extent that he was the most impressive defender in the recent Carling Cup tie against Newcastle United.
It is clear that foreign players are more highly rated at clubs rather than home-grown ones. The best example is at Barcelona, where Lionel Messi, Bojan Krkic and Giovani Dos Santos, are all originally from Argentina, Serbia and Mexico respectively, these three were the only ones to graduate to the first team, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Captain Carlos Puyol and Ronaldinho. With Arsene Wenger recently claimed he is ‘addicted to statistics’, no one is better placed than the Frenchman himself to judge whether the young Spaniard is good enough. Proof that Merida has a bright future at the club is shown by a brief appearance against Newcastle in what was his first team debut. With the player predominantly left-footed, a rarity at Arsenal, with only left-full backs and striker Eduardo, such a quality is again likely to be treasured.
Therefore I firmly believe that the young Spaniard will be fixture in the Arsenal side for years to come.