With Jonjo Shelvey finally looking like the same player that earned six England caps, a casualty of his resurgence has been Mikel Merino.
The 21 year old last started consecutive league games in December.
Rafa’s aversion to pairing Shelvey and the young Spaniard together, has left Merino marooned on the bench in recent months.
It must be said that Mo Diame has won over plenty of his doubters with some solid displays in the centre of the park and Isaac Hayden remains a solid back-up on the bench. Even so, Mikel Merino looks like a long-term prospect with serious potential.
He may not be an explosive playmaker or attacking dynamo but the ex-Osasuna prodigy impressed in his first months with the team.
What struck me most was his competency with basic, yet often overlooked, aspects of the game. He kept possession and spread it through the team. He didn’t panic or make rash decisions. And unlike his more-celebrated midfield counterpart, could maintain his discipline at all times.
It seems as if some of that spring has gone out of his step since the winter winless run but Rafa needs to find a way to keep nurturing this exciting talent.
With the right coaching (admittedly not one of NUFC’s strong points with previous hot prospects) his development could benefit this club immensely.
With at least a decade of career time still ahead of him, Merino has plenty of years to grow and prove himself.
I’ve always been disappointed by how Davide Santon, a highly-rated Italian international when he signed, never quite made the grade at St James Park. His sale back to Internazionale felt very short-sighted and never entirely made sense to me.
Hopefully Mikel Merino can avoid that same stagnation.
The risk, however, is giving him enough game time in order to make those leaps in experience. I hope he gets the chance.