In October 2017, Mikel Merino had just scored the winner at St.James’ Park against rock bottom Crystal Palace to cap a fine run of form for both him personally and a newly promoted Newcastle side, as we rose as high as 7th in the table. Our form naturally tailed off as we fought relegation but Merino continued to shine in a poor side. With Newcastle now in the midst of an outstanding run that has saw us climb back into the top half and secure safety with five games to go; just what happened to Merino?
He has had a poor 2018 as he has deal with injury, loss of form and transfer speculation – a total contrast from the elegant and classy midfielder we saw at the start of the campaign. What has went wrong for the former Dortmund man?
The fine form of Diame and Shelvey
The most obvious reason at the moment is the outstanding form of both Shelvey and Diame, which has pushed Merino down the pecking order. Rafa Benitez must have been the only one to envisage the turnaround in fortunes for Mo Diame, with the Senegalese midfielder being instrumental in our revival. Latest press reports also seem to think Southgate is finally recognising Shelvey and he may now make the World Cup squad after all.
Fine form from this pair is one thing but it doesn’t explain the Merino case fully. Merino was being dropped before Diame was playing well and eve, the Spaniard now isn’t even making the bench. Hayden has been preferred for that, which seems odd to say the least. Hayden has a good attitude but nowhere near the ability of Merino, especially to change a game. You get the sense there is more to Merino’s exclusion than just the form of others.
Unsettled after Bilbao rumours?
Another theory could be the speculation in January, which seems to have derailed Merino at Newcastle. After signing him permanently, Athletic Bilbao apparently lined up a bid in excess of £15m and remain interested. Rafa came out and said he wouldn’t be leaving in January and so he stayed on Tyneside but has not played much, or well, since.
Despite impressive interviews, it could well be that behind closed doors Merino pushed for the move and fell out of favour with Benitez. We all know Rafa doesn’t take well to distractions and proven by the Mitrovic case, player taking on the boss tend to be frozen out quickly. He has massive potential but I would not be surprised to see the Bilbao move materialise in the summer.
Still struggling after injury issues?
Another key factor has been injuries, Merino has struggled with a back injury for most of the year. After it only being diagnosed initially as a few weeks, it seemed to escalate and cause him more problems than expected.
When he did eventually return he has not been the same player (see Liverpool way) – sluggish, unfit and clearly lacking confidence, physically, he seems to have lost his way, his recent displays have been a far cry from the strong and domineering midfielder we saw at the start of the season.
Taken his eye off the ball since a permanent deal was awarded?
Amongst all this, Newcastle signed Merino permanently for a small fee of £7m. This now looks like excellent business for Newcastle, whether he stays in the summer or not. H either stays and Newcastle have a great prospect on their books or if he does leave, we can expect to at least double our money. After arriving on loan initially, Merino looked hungry and eager to impress after being on the fringes a Dortmund. It may be an unfair claim to level at the 21 year old but it may be that winning a permanent move, combined with transfer speculation, he took his eye off the ball.
Simply a young player taking time to settle?
It is also worth remembering that Merino is just 21 and it is quite common for young players, who are new to the Premier League, to take time to settle. This can either happen by being phased into the team until they get to grips with a new league; especially one as physical and quick as the Premier League. There are also countless examples of players who have started brilliantly then drifted, or even then suffered from ‘second season syndrome’.
Merino is not the first and won’t be the last young player to have dips in form, it is all part of improving and developing some constancy. I still think he has the ingredients to be a top player and taking time to settle isn’t a concern, especially as we are already safe. The bigger threat he faces is being the right side of Benitez, as reading between the lines it looks like he has fallen out of favour.
Rafa has proven he knows best on more than one occasion this season; from demanding we need a new keeper, chasing Kenedy for so long, sticking with Diame and underling the importance of Dummett. If Rafa stays as we hope he does, Merino needs to knuckle down, ignore off field matters and get back to the fine form we all know he is capable of producing.
What’s your take on Merino and his first season at Newcastle?