For all the talk of Rafa Benitez going out to stop Liverpool. Last Sunday featured our most offensive midfield duo so far, this season, with Shelvey returning next to Mikel Merino. It was a surprising move for me as Benitez seemed to be edging towards Hayden again in the pre-match build-up and you can see why. It’s hardly as if the former Gooner has done a lot wrong in the last few weeks, and he has a knack of making his partner in midfield look better, by doing the nasty jobs.
Yet Rafa decided it was time to bring Jonjo back and post-game it’s tough to argue it was the wrong call. The pass for the equaliser was not something many could have pulled out. Many rightly praised Shelvey after the game, but what seems to have been forgotten, is another excellent performance from our Spanish acquisition Mikel Merino.
Even in the disappointing game against Brighton, the one bright spot was another superb performance from Merino. I don’t remember him once giving the ball away. The playmaker already looks to a me a real top-class player. He rarely loses possession and is capable of dictating the whole tempo of the team. Not only that, but he gets around the pitch comfortably with excellent energy levels, and knows how to put a foot in when its needed. The modern midfielder.
His early effort against Brighton points towards a player who can also score from distance. His goal record at Osasuna is good without being outstanding – but he is only 21. You would expect him to add more goals to his game over time. Put simply, we haven’t had a more well-rounded midfielder since Yohan Cabaye, potentially even better.
When he only had a minor cameo role in his debut against Spurs, he appeared to stand out from the rest. To have the confidence to come off the bench and start organising his new teammates around him, was hugely impressive. This is obviously a player a real pedigree we have. Borussia Dortmund don’t just sign any old kid for their midfield ranks, even if he struggled to get in the squad last season, but I was still surprised with how he commanded the midfield so early. Everything about him oozes class.
His touch, pass and decision-making, just create the look of a proper Premier League player.
Since Shelvey’s stupidity against Spurs, Merino has been outstanding in midfield. Many had him as man of the match against West Ham and in the Swansea game he completely upstaged the much-hyped Renato Sanches. He looks like the best player in the team right now.
Yet Shelvey still seems to be the indispensable midfielder, as shown when Rafa decided to take Merino off for Hayden, despite the fact Shelvey hadn’t played for weeks and looked out of steam towards the end. I can understand why Shelvey gets a lot of the plaudits but it does surprise me that no one seems to praise Merino more vocally.
Perhaps this is a good thing, if the loan does get tied up as a permanent one quickly, then I would expect him to have a number of suitors in the future. If Dortmund have already had him on the books, you can be sure a number of Europe’s top clubs have had a look at him.
For me he’s been our best player so far this season and as we go on, it would not be a surprise to see the attacking play built around Merino. We look capable of executing Rafa’s counter attacking set-up well but it will be our creative players who make the difference this season. Merino will have a key role to play. Here’s hoping he can stay fit, first and foremost.
It will be intriguing to see if after the international break, Rafa continues to put faith in Mikel Merino and Shelvey, or return to a more rigid midfield set-up. One possible solution could be to push Mikel into the number 10 slot to accommodate Shelvey and Hayden behind him, but this would mean dropping Perez, which Benitez doesn’t seem keen on due to his admiration of our number 17.
It would be an option if nothing else and might even accelerate the development of Merino. He may not have been completely recognised yet, but in a team of hard workers, one player of real individual quality can be the difference between a good season and an average season.
Fast forward to next May, our fans are chanting Merino’s name to the tune of Blondie’s ‘Maria’, after his man of the match display in a two-nil win against Chelsea, on the final day of the season to secure an impressive 7th finish in our first season back in the Premier League.
What’s so unrealistic about that?
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