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The permanent signing of Mikel Merino indicates a positive future for Newcastle United

Jake Jackman

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Merino

Mikel Merino has been one of the breakout stars during the opening two months of the Premier League season as he has been a standout performer for newly-promoted Newcastle United. The midfielder was a summer signing from Borussia Dortmund. He initially joined on a season-long loan, but it was announced on Friday that he had now signed a permanent deal with the club. The 21-year-old has penned a five-year-deal at St James’ Park.

This is a great piece of business by Newcastle, as he has already established himself as one of the key players in the first-team and at the age of 21, he is going to get significantly better in the future. Although he was contracted to Borussia Dortmund, Merino wasn’t well-known across Europe and his low exposure meant that the Magpies were able to bring him to the North East. He is clearly a massive talent and the fact the newly-promoted side have got him speaks volumes for the scouting system that Rafa Benitez has put in place.

It has been well documented that the current ownership won’t be investing heaps of money into the club and they have been criticised for lack of investment. However, if they appoint the right man to oversee recruitment, it is possible to compete on a budget. Benitez has a lot of connections across Europe and he played a major part in signing Merino with the permanent fee reported to be around £8 million. That is a bargain in the current market and sends a message to the board that the manager should be trusted when it comes to the transfer market.

Supporters can be forgiven for being sceptical about the timing of this announcement, as Mike Ashley has shown a preference for selling key players during his tenure. It could be that he is already eyeing one last player sale before selling the club and regards Merino as the asset that will bring in the most money.

However, those looking at this deal with a positive outlook may think that the midfielder signing a permanent deal, coupled with Jamaal Lascelles agreeing to a new contract suggests better times ahead. It is unlikely that the two players would have committed their long-term futures to Newcastle unless they had received assurances regarding the direction of the club. The fact they have both signed for the next five years indicates that Rafa Benitez has provided those, which may have included promises over his long-term future as manager.

It is impossible to tell with Newcastle, but at this stage, supporters should be focusing on the upsides of this transfer and there are several.

Merino’s 2017/18 season so far

The Spaniard arrived with little fanfare and started the season out of the first-team. The red card to Jonjo Shelvey during the opening weekend gave him an opportunity and he hasn’t looked back. There were some nice touches by Merino against Tottenham, but he came on when the game was already lost, thus the pressure was no longer there.

“His performance against Huddersfield Town received mixed reviews. The majority of Newcastle supporters could see positive signs in his game, but Graeme Souness highlighted him for criticism for his role in the goal that was conceded.

“Mikel Merino, when he comes out to confront Mooy his sole intention is neither to have any physical contact or indeed not get hit by the ball. It’s a joke. You’re defending 20 yards out from your goal – take a blow for the cause. Make yourself difficult to beat. He actually runs out of the way of Mooy and the ball. 

“You can’t win games of football when you’ve got people making those decisions so near your goalmouth when it’s costing you goals. It’s weak. It’s what you would see in kid’s football.”

For a young player arriving in a new country, it would have been difficult for Merino to make an immediate impact and his confidence levels wouldn’t have been helped by Souness’ comments. However, he showed maturity in ignoring the criticism and bouncing back with an excellent performance against West Ham.

Merino was one of the best players on show and played a key role in Newcastle picking up their first win of the Premier League season. During the match, he completed three ball recoveries, two dribbles, two key passes and won five aerial duels. It was a great display in both halves of the pitch and gave a glimpse of the talent that he possesses.

His level of consistency has been impressive, as he has remained at that level for every game since. In his last Premier League outing, he was caught in possession a few times against Liverpool, but that is to be expected given the way that Jurgen Klopp sets-up. His overall performance was excellent once more, as he completed eight ball recoveries, more than any other player on the pitch.

The next challenge will be to start contributing in the final third, as he has yet to score or assist for Newcastle. He scored for the Spain under-21s earlier this week and showed at Osasuna that he could be a threat in attack. In the season prior to his move to Dortmund, he scored seven times in the Spanish second division. Benitez will know that it is only a matter of time before he starts to contribute to the attack.

How far can he go?

The reason that this deal is so good for Newcastle is that Merino has the potential to become a Champions League calibre player. Dortmund noticed that in the midfielder, but they couldn’t give him the first team minutes needed to develop him. At St James’ Park, he is already a key player in the first-team and under Benitez, he will be learning every day. The 21-year-old has improved since joining on loan and he is in the right place to continue his progression as a player.

“I’m really happy to be here, and for this part of the contract to finally be official. I’m happy to be here for five more years and I hope to keep playing for this club and to give good things to all the people and the club,” 

Merino talked of his happiness at the permanent move and the comments above reflect a player that is planning for the long-term at Newcastle rather than seeing the club as a stepping stone. The problem for the Magpies in the past has been that a lot of their squad have been playing for moves away rather than seeing St James’ Park as a destination in itself.

Benitez has played a key part in ensuring Newcastle are perceived differently in the world of football and it is important that they continue to sign players like Merino. The likes of Yohan Cabaye, Gini Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko outgrew the club. They can’t afford to let the same happen with the Spaniard. They need to develop with him and emerge as a force in English football once more.

Jake is a student based in the South East. He is a Newcastle fan and has a keen interest in Dutch football. Jake can be found on Twitter here - @jakejackmann.

FA Cup

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham – Lucas Moura shines despite disappointing day for Spurs

Jake Jackman

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Tottenham

Tottenham are going to have to rely on a replay for the second successive round as they conceded a dramatic late equaliser to Rochdale. It was a reminder of the magic that the FA Cup still possesses and it will provide a useful cash injection for the League One club. Spurs opted to make several changes and rest key players, but they selected a team that should have progressed on the day.

Ian Henderson scored in the first-half to give Dale a first-half lead and it was deserved. Keith Hill’s team played good football and went toe-to-toe against their more illustrious opposition.

Lucas Moura and Harry Kane scored to put Tottenham into a 2-1 lead, but that wasn’t the end of the goal-scoring as Steve Davies scored to take the tie to a replay. Here are three talking points from Spotland:

Lucas Moura’s performance showed why Tottenham signed him

It was a signing that came out of left-field, as Tottenham prefer to do their transfer business in the summer. However, this opportunity was too good to turn down as they were given the chance to sign a proven Brazilian international. He had fallen on tough times at PSG and rarely featured this season, but he proved why the club signed him on Sunday.

The Brazilian wasn’t afraid of the fight and was up for the test offered by League One opposition. Every time he got on the ball, it looked like he could make something happen, as shown by his seven dribbles completed.

He had a touch of class that allowed him to stand out from the rest of the players on the pitch and if he can consistently perform at that level, he will turn out to be a great signing.

His movement was superb, as he regularly found pockets of space to exploit. Interestingly, he won five aerial duels and that shows that he has quickly adjusted to English football. It was Lucas that scored the equaliser mid-way through the second half with a confident finish. He will have played himself into Mauricio Pochettino’s plans for the coming weeks.

Rochdale impressed on their day in the spotlight

They were written off before a ball was kicked as they were facing one of the best teams in the country. Rochdale are currently rock-bottom of League One and 11 points from safety, albeit with four matches in hand. They laid a new pitch ahead of this match and the players adapted to it well, showing that they can play good football.

Callum Camps and Andrew Cannon impressed in the centre of the park, while their two wily experienced strikers got the goals. Ian Henderson was a tireless worker in the final third and put the Tottenham defenders under pressure.

He snatched at a couple of chances in the first-half, but he remained cool when another chance came his way and scored the opening goal.

It will be a tough ask for them to go to Wembley, but they can go there with no fear as they have nothing to lose. The tie will give them an injection of money that the club needs, especially if they are to suffer relegation this season.

Toby Alderweireld looks a long way from his best

The Tottenham defence didn’t look as assured as they usually do and both of their centre-backs struggled at times during the match.

Alderweireld was left out of the trip to Juventus and there were some supporters that questioned that decision. However, he looked short of match fitness against Rochdale and was arguably at fault for the late equaliser.

The Belgian international looked rusty and his decision making was not great. He picked up a yellow card for a rash tackle and that is one example of that. Juan Foyth played alongside Alderweireld and his inexperience showed when Rochdale did attack.

For Alderweireld, he wants to be back in the first-team and that is eventually where he will be, but he isn’t at the level required to be starting right now. Tottenham are fighting on multiple fronts and they can’t afford to have any players that aren’t at 100%. He is returning from a serious injury and he will need time to get back to his best.

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Liverpool

Roberto Firmino: His performances will shape the end to Liverpool’s season

Martyn Cooke

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On Sunday afternoon at St Mary’s Stadium the returning Virgil Van Dijk took centre stage and assumed the role of pantomime villain for the day.

However, whilst much of the pre-game build up was centred on the former Southampton defender, who was making his first return to the club since signing for Liverpool in January, the post-match conversations were focused on the brilliance of the Dutchman’s attacking teammate.

Roberto Firmino is one of the most under-rated players in the Premier League and his performance last weekend reaffirmed that he is one of the most effective forward players in the top-flight of English football.

The Brazilian has rarely been the centre of attention since arriving at Anfield in the summer of 2015 for £29 million and the media have often overlooked his significant contributions on the pitch.

Roberto Firmino

At Liverpool he has been forced to be content playing in the shadow of Philippe Coutinho, prior to his move to Barcelona, and Mohamed Salah, who has been a revelation since joining the club in the summer.

But Firmino is now emerging as one of the most creative, innovative and exciting forwards in the Premier League and he is undoubtedly one of the most improved players of the season.

The 26-year-old is both a creator and a goal scorer, as Southampton discovered to their cost at the weekend, when he opened the scoring with a neat finish within the opening six minutes before providing the assist for Salah’s goal with an ingenious flick.

The goal was his 20th of the campaign, which was shortly followed by his 21st of the season against Porto in the Reds’ midweek Champions League fixture, and he is now only nine short of becoming the Premier League’s all-time highest Brazilian goal scorer.

Firmino is a unique mixture of technical brilliance, creativity, innovation and an intelligence that makes him unpredictable, difficult to mark and a constant threat, regardless of where he pops up on the pitch.

However, whilst his Brazilian flair may catch the eye it is his willingness to pressurise opponents and work hard off the ball that is genuinely impressive.

He is certainly a favourite of Jurgen Klopp, who admires his hard running, work rate and pressing that often sets the tone for the rest of the team.

The 26-year-old has still gone somewhat unnoticed this campaign despite his consistency and performances on the pitch and the fact that he has missed only one league game all season.

But that is set to change.

Firmino’s performances and form have proven that there is still a bright future at Anfield despite the departure of Coutinho in January.

Deployed as an unconventional number nine, the Brazilian is the centre of a dynamic attacking forward line that sees him flanked by Salah on one side and Sadio Mane on the other.

The trio possess the pace, intelligence and creativity to threaten any team in Europe, as demonstrated by the mid-week five-goal demolition of Porto in the Champions League, and central to their effectiveness is the link up play of Firmino.

Still only 26, the Brazilian is about to reach the peak of his prowess and his continued development under Klopp poses the exciting question of how much better the forward might become in the forthcoming two or three years.

He certainly possesses all of the characteristics to become a legend at the club, should he choose to remain at Anfield long term, and he now has the opportunity to step out of Coutinho’s shadow and enjoy the limelight for himself.

Liverpool supporters will be hoping that Firmino can maintain his current run of form over the coming months and his performances will shape the club’s season.

His creativity and knack for scoring goals will be an invaluable commodity as Klopp goes in search of a top four place and potential silverware.

Firmino my have been underrated in the past, but he is now taking centre stage as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack.

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Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium as Manchester United overcame Huddersfield Town in their FA Cup 5th Round contest.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

A brace from sharpshooter Romelu Lukaku fired Manchester United into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at the expense of Huddersfield Town.

Lukaku opened his account in the third minute before netting his second of the evening shortly after the second-half resumption.

Victory was not as straightforward as the scoreline suggested. However, as the Terriers produced a spirited display after the early setback.

There was also controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Juan Mata saw an effort ruled out for offside after a review, but confusion abounded about whether it had been the correct decision.

Here are three talking points from an eventful encounter, as United set up a last-eight tie with Brighton & Hove Albion…

Lukaku’s goals are a fillip for Jose Mourinho

The Belgian has come in for criticism from some quarters for his goal return since last summer’s big-money transfer from Everton.

While he may not have reached the levels of Harry Kane or Mohamed Salah, Lukaku has now scored 21 times in all competitions for United this season.

That tally was boosted by his double against Huddersfield, which showed off his best attributes.

Lukaku was too strong and clever for Huddersfield’s defence as he latched on to Mata’s through ball for the first, before putting the finishing touch to an Alexis Sanchez pass for his second.

The former Chelsea man’s performance will be the biggest plus for United boss Jose Mourinho, who is relying on him to spearhead the attack for the remainder of the campaign.

Lukaku is a confidence player, so this was a timely boost ahead of a crucial run of fixtures both domestically and in Europe.

VAR under the microscope yet again

The introduction of technology to any sport usually results in teething problems.

It is fair to say VAR has experienced more than its fair share in football this season.

Employed in some FA and League Cup matches, controversy has never been far away. This was again the case at Huddersfield.

Mata appeared to have doubled United’s lead just before half-time, but referee Kevin Friend waited for confirmation from VAR that he had been onside.

After about a minute, Friend disallowed the goal when it was judged that Mata had been fractionally offside as the ball was played.

Contention emerged when viewers saw the incident on TV, where the guidelines were clearly not straight.

In fact, they were embarrassingly wonky.

Further replays suggested – with parallel lines correctly in place – that Mata’s knee had indeed been offside, but it was a very close call and certainly not an obvious mistake by the referee’s assistant.

These technical hitches will need to be ironed out before VAR is brought in universally.

Huddersfield can be positive despite FA Cup exit

With their Premier League status hanging in the balance, it would have been understandable if Huddersfield manager David Wagner had seen this fixture as an unwanted distraction.

But there was absolutely no suggestion that they were trying not to win the match, or prepared to exit the competition without a fight.

The Terriers, who famously beat United at home in the Premier League last October, carried on from where they left off last weekend in the impressive 4-1 victory over Bournemouth.

Conceding so early to United had not been in the script, but the hosts regrouped quickly and caused their opponents plenty of problems.

Ultimately, the difference between the two sides was the quality of finishing.

Whereas the visitors scored with their only two shots on target, Huddersfield wasted numerous openings as they slipped to defeat.

Nevertheless, attention can be turned back to their bid for survival, without their confidence dented.

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