Rafa Benitez reveals what happened when Mikel Merino raised the bar at Newcastle

Mikel Merino looks to play a pass. Picture by Frank Reid
Mikel Merino looks to play a pass. Picture by Frank Reid

Rafa Benitez says it’s “difficult” for Mikel Merino to get a game – because of the form of Jonjo Shelvey and Mohamed Diame.

The Newcastle United midfielder has only started two Premier League games since the turn of the year.

Merino, signed from Borussia Dortmund last year, impressed in the early part of the season before suffering a back injury.

And the 21-year-old has found his opportunities limited in recent months.

“Jonjo’s been doing well, Diame’s been doing well, and so it’s been difficult for Merino and (Isaac) Hayden,” said United manager Benitez.

“But they have to keep competing. That’s it. He’s not playing so much, because the others are doing well.

We need players who can dictate the tempo of the game, manage the game for us, and when Mikel was playing well, Jonjo needed to work harder.

Rafa Benitez

“He has to compete and make sure he gets back in the side. Always, we want to sign the best players, and when we have the best players here, then someone has to be on the bench.

“A player on the bench may not be good enough to start, and then all fans will ask ‘why do you have him? He’s not good enough’.

“What we want is fans to say about players who are on the bench is ‘why is he not playing? He’s really good’. But it’s because another player’s doing better than him.

“If you want to improve as a team, as a club, then you have to have good players on the bench. This will create a debate between the fans. Why is he not playing? Why is he playing there? Why isn’t he in the team?.

“But when you do not have a strong squad, it means the players on the bench are not good enough – and that’s bad for the team.”

Shelvey has responded to the arrival of Merino, who is away with Spain’s Under-21s.

“That, for me, is a positive thing,” said Benitez. “You have a player you know could replace the other one in the side – that increases their level.

“We need players who can dictate the tempo of the game, manage the game for us, and when Mikel was playing well, Jonjo needed to work harder.

“Now Jonjo’s doing well, so Mikel has to work harder.”