Rafa Benitez reacts to criticism of his handling of Mohamed Diame at Newcastle
Rafa Benitez says he's not surprised by Mohamed Diame's form this season '“ as he was always destined for a midfield role.
Diame was used as a No 10 last season after joining from Hull City.
The midfielder’s form in the Championship – and Benitez’s decision to play him as a second striker – came under scrutiny from fans.
The 30-year-old has been fielded as a conventional midfielder alongside Jonjo Shelvey this season – and the former Senegal international has been a revelation.
Benitez – who has followed Diame’s career since he joined Rayo Vallecano a decade ago – has insisted that his longer-term future at United always lay in midfield.
“It’s very funny what has happened with Diame, and how some people have seen him since he’s been here,” said Benitez, whose side take on Huddersfield Town at St James’s Park on Saturday.
“When he was in Spain, playing for Rayo Vallecano, he was playing as a midfielder. So I knew that he’s a midfielder.
“But then some of the fans said ‘oh, why does Rafa always play Diame as a second striker?’.
“It’s because in the Championship his power was good, he was winning balls in the air, getting into the box, and all these things.
“Then when we were playing him as a second striker, some people were always criticising him.
“Now we’re playing him as a midfielder, and some people are saying ‘oh, Rafa, he didn’t realise that Diame was a midfielder, but he has realised now’.
“No. We knew already. When he was playing in Spain. We had seen how he played out there in that position.
“We needed to manage these positions, and we knew Diame could do that for us.
“This year, at the beginning of the summer, when we decided the squad, Diame was one of the midfielders.
“So we were looking for a No 10 to compete in this position that we couldn’t find, but Diame was always a midfielder for us this season.”
Benitez says Diame’s switch to midfield was one of the factors behind his decision to leave Jack Colback out of his squad.
“The reason why Colback and (Henri) Saivet were not in the squad at the beginning was because Diame was a midfielder,” said Benitez.
“We knew what he could do, and I’m really pleased, because he’s doing really, really well now.
“It’s just about competition. (Isaac) Hayden was a young player, coming in, improving and getting better. Now he has to compete against Diame – that’s good.”
For his part, Diame is again enjoying his football, having been frustrated with his form last season.
“I’m enjoying it a lot,” said Diame, who retired from international football a year ago to concentrate on his club career.
“It’s what I wanted to since the beginning, but unfortunately, it couldn’t happen, so now I’m trying to enjoy it a lot better. I need to make sure that I stay at a high level.”