I was at the Everton game early in December and vividly remember several sections of the St James’ Park crowd sarcastically cheering when Mo Diame’s number came up after Rafa decided enough was enough.
He was awful that day, giving him a 2 out of 10 in our post-match player ratings piece – the joint worst mark any Newcastle player has been given from us so far this season.
Since then, however, he’s not only shown superb character to respond to his doubters and stand up the criticism, but he’s started consistently performing on the pitch – something he’s been unable to do up until now since arriving at the club 18 months ago from Hull.
It’s been a sensational turnaround in form from the Senegalese midfielder. He’s gone from some peoples first name on the January transfer list to the first name on the team sheet, with his all action performances in midfield quite rightfully winning him January’s player of the month.
What’s changed then? How has a player who looked so cumbersome and lacking in quality suddenly became one of our top performers?
Here’s my theory behind it and TWO massive factors behind his rise to form:
Rafa has altered his game and handed him a new role in this NUFC team
He’s now 30 and doesn’t have the same pace and athleticism that he showed during his earlier and slightly more explosive days in the Premier League. I think Rafa’s noticed this and has worked on him taking up a new role in the team. He’s become a spoiler and a big brute in the midfield, not a Sissoko-esque luxury who might do the odd nice run but largely go missing for 85 minutes of a game.
He had so often been described as sluggish and sloppy in all he’s done since signing from Hull 18 months ago, but he now appears anything but, and that’s no coincidence to me. Rafa has made him our midfield enforcer, not the explosive number 10 that never was.
We’ve lacked tacklers in midfield all season and Diame has given us exactly that. I think Rafa knows that he’s limited technically, so it seems to me like he’s told him to use his power and simply put himself about more – knowing that this will A) make use of his size and B) appease the NUFC fans who appreciate effort, intensity and strong tackles as much as anything else.
Deploying him in a deeper role has allowed him to use his natural traits far more effectively, which brings me onto my second point.
He’s finally being used in his natural position – he was NEVER a number 10
Rafa may have instructed him to do things differently and make use of his size and strength, meaning he’s not the same style of player we once saw making marauding runs through midfield at Wigan and West Ham, but the key is that he’s now in the area of the field that he’s played almost all his career.
I banged on about it all of last season that he was not a number 10. I admit that he wasn’t doing nearly enough in the team (even if it was an unfamiliar position for him), but it was clear as day that it wasn’t working or playing to his strenghts.
I often heard fans compare him to Shola Ameobi which perhaps sums it up. Our number 10 was played so close to the lone striker last season (often Gayle) that it’d be easy to think Diame was some sort of centre-forward given the positions he often took up.
He so often had his back to goal and was receiving the ball in areas of the pitch he just didn’t look comfortable with. Now he’s in a central midfield (a position he played in during successful Premier League stints with West Ham and Wigan), he’s picking up the ball with the game ahead of him, with him also being in an area of the field far more suited to a player of his size and power when it comes to aerial duels, tackling and closing down.
Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t doing any of that well enough a few months ago even when Rafa had him playing in a deeper midfield role, but I feel the two factors mentioned above have played a huge part in giving him a proper role in our side, playing to his strengths and most importantly, upping his confidence.
And just look what a bit of confidence can do. He’s scoring goals, tackling like a beast-mode Tiote, pinging passes about like an on-song Jonjo Shelvey and making bursting runs like Moussa Sissoko when the Sky cameras were pointing his way.
— Black&WhiteBarmy (@BlackWhiteBarmy) February 6, 2018
One final point. Maybe the Lascelles incident and his shocking display against Everton in December (which saw him hauled off early) gave him a kick up the backside.
He’s always spoke well, being refreshingly honest about his poor form and seems like a good bloke, but he’s now taken responsibility, knuckled down and is finally delivering on the pitch.
Great to see – keep it up big Mo!