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Opinion

The one player Newcastle United desperately need back to form

8 months ago
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Premier League safety was reached at a relatively early stage last season, built on a solid base.

From February onwards, Rafa Benitez went with pretty much the same team, a side that saw Martin Dubravka excel as he seamlessly stepped up to the Premier League.

Whilst in front of him, Florian Lejeune took advantage of an injury to Ciaran Clark, to form a formidable partnership with Jamaal Lascelles.

Completing a solid base/spine, you then had Jonjo Shelvey and Mohamed Diame throwing off the average/disappointing previous earlier in the season form, to forge a dynamic midfield duo.

Whilst Newcastle fans understandably stressed throughout the summer about the lack of urgency and funds for new signings, there was comfort and confidence to be had, knowing that we had this goalkeeper, centre back and centre midfield to rely on in the upcoming season.

The injury to Lejeune obviously scuppered this to an extent, although at least in the middle of the defence we have what looks some strength in depth, all internationals, Ciaran Clark, Federico Fernandez and Fabian Schar to call on.

However, I think the biggest concern has been that little bit further forward on the pitch. Jonjo Shelvey had had his moments although a little up and down in the two games so far – but to be honest, Mohamed Diame has been really really poor for me.

I could never have imagined last summer, or even in January, that I would be saying that Diame is key to Newcastle’s success, but that is very much the case now.

He went from being a bit of a joke, to somebody who really made the team tick in those final three or four months of last season.

Previously he jogged around the pitch putting very little pressure on the opposition, only to then transform into a midfielder who was getting his foot in pretty much wherever the ball happened to be.

There was always a risk factor that he wouldn’t be able to carry on that form of February to May 2018, his age (now 31), the poor form we had seen in the previous 18 months or more, and sometimes players just have purple patches and then lapse back into mediocrity for seemingly no reason at all.

With Mikel Merino we had real quality competition in this position in the Premier League run-in, a young midfielder carrying a lot of promise and having shown real quality early in the season before a back injury.

He left the club for £10m this summer and was never replaced, surely that was a no-brainer considering it is arguably the most important position on the pitch, the engine room, and the lack of quality options Rafa was left with.

Just look at how much teams such as Fulham and Bournemouth are spending on central/defensive midfielders, £25m+ for the likes of Jean Michael Seri and  Jefferson Lerma.

Newcastle brought in Ki Sung-yueng on a free transfer after he was released by Swansea, on the surface it looks a decent extra body to bring in, but not a signing that exactly screams ambition.

Anyway, the South Korean is an attacking midfielder and difficult to see Rafa Benitez ever wanting to play him with Shelvey as a pair.

Instead, Isaac Hayden is the only real competition for Mohamed Diame and as well as going public this summer with how he was desperate to leave, he also never showed any signs last season of having been able to step up to Premier League level. His brief showing last Saturday (out of position, hardly reassuring, either in terms of performance or attitude/discipline.

As further evidence of just how vital Mohamed Diame was to Newcastle’s late season form, just look at our interactive player ratings from thousands of fans giving their input.

The final eight games of the 2017/18 season saw Mohamed Diame made Newcastle’s man of the match on five occasions, the final one joint highest with Jonjo Shelvey against Chelsea. Diame was also highest rated in the win over Arsenal, the match when we knew Newcastle were definitely staying up.

In those final eight games, other than Diame and Shelvey, only Dubravka (away at Watford) was made man of the match by fans in our ratings.

Hopefully Mohamed Diame, and to a large extent Jonjo Shelvey, have just been warming up, and a couple of weeks into the season they will once again show the form that saw them outperform their opposite numbers when facing Arsenal, Chelsea and Man Utd earlier this year.

I would argue that Diame is even more important than Shelvey against these better teams, such as Chelsea, because if their central midfielders are allowed to totally dominate then it is usually game over on most occasions.

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