Jonjo Shelvey has now spent longer at Newcastle than anywhere else in his career. From his first team debut at Charlton in 2008, Liverpool in 2010 and Swansea in 2013 it appeared his career was allowing him to be a high-quality midfield player. Opportunities at Liverpool were limited which explained the move to Swansea more than anything else. When he made his first start (sixth appearance) for England in 2015 as a Swansea player, he appeared to be one of the best midfielders in the country.
It is now January 2021 and it would appear Shelvey is not even the best English midfielder at Newcastle. He has never played for England as a Newcastle player. When he arrived in January 2016 he ran the team brilliantly against West Ham making two goals in the 2-1 win. His range of passing stood out, and he seemed motivated to put the fall out from his exit from Swansea behind him. The excellent first impressions saw him made captain by Steve McClaren while in La Manga, whilst Coloccini was injured.
Since then though what have we seen. Benitez’s arrival saw him play the first four or so games, before being benched. Townsend was more to the managers liking out wide, so Sissoko and Wijnaldum played through the middle.
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His play in the Championship flipped between pedestrian to outstanding, when given time and space against some of the smaller teams he could play breath taking stuff. His freekick against Brighton set a marker for the season. His passing at times won us games, at others it was clear he was far too deep, coming to get the ball off the back four and allowing teams to press up. Probably the moment that showed this best was the home defeat to Fulham, Tom Cairney seemed to have the ability to dominate the space between our defence and midfield. We thought our England international would be able to run the game, instead he was hassled, harried and looked out of sorts.
This is the Jonjo Shelvey conundrum, the rise in pressing bringing it further to the fore. His gifted passing and ability to score around the box on occasion, are not to be sniffed at. His 6 goals last season were vital to us resuming 2020/21 in the Premier League. But … his movement around the pitch leaves us exposed and his focus on the defensive side of his game needs to improve. More worrying than both of those is that his passing doesn’t seem to be having the impact it did. Possibly due to changes in personnel or our new ‘football without the ball’ style, Shelvey seems isolated and an easy target for most midfields across the country.
The return to the Premier League did him no favours, the players playing against him got quicker and they were technically better. The likes of Jordan Henderson, N’Golo Kante knew that to stop him, you just closed down the space, and that for periods in Rafa’s final two years that stopping him when he played, stopped us. I think it was clear to everyone that had Benitez stayed in 2019, Shelvey would now most likely be at his boyhood club West Ham, he would not have remained in Black and White.
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This season he has been given a new contract, puzzling to this writer and I’m sure large parts of the fan base. He has still the ability to be a creative force, but the body does not seem to have the pace or energy to do so. Some fans might see him as lazy but I believe if you want to get the best out of Shelvey you need runners in midfield and pace out wide in attacking areas to stretch full backs. With ASM out with COVID and Almiron not in favour, there are not players in those positions to allow Shelvey those opportunities. Similarly his partnership with Dwight Gayle, which looked integral to the way we played for a couple of six month periods, has been hampered by injuries to Gayle and then Jonjo’s falling position within the squad. The defeat to Brentford where he was captain of a team devoid of leadership and creativity surely shows that.
So what role does our number 8 play now? He has two more years to run on a very lucrative contract. He is probably now fourth choice to play in midfield, possibly third but it does look like Matty Longstaff has got that spot off him. He isn’t the fulcrum of the team because he doesn’t have the engine to last 90 minutes in a team like this, and his tackling or defensive covering is so poor that we would need to play with a three in midfield and become a 5-5-0 to allow that. The players out wide aren’t fitting to his type to start games.
I think Shelvey is now going to have to be a bench player who gets the last 20-25 mins against tired legs. However, judging by his play against Leicester even this isn’t a sure thing. Yes he produced an excellent chance at 2-1 but watch their second goal back. See him go towards Tielemans, they pass round him, run past him and leave him 7 yards behind. It is a good metaphor for Shelvey’s Newcastle career, the Premier League has left him behind.