Jonjo Shelvey is undoubtedly a talented footballer and wherever he has been throughout his career (Charlton, Liverpool, Swansea and Newcastle) we have seen flashes of his superb passing and shooting ability.
Despite being still a fairly young age and being in and around England squads, there always seems to be a question mark against him at whichever club he is at, from a range of different managers.
From Kenny Dalglish to Brendan Rodgers, Gary Monk and now Rafa Benitez, he has so far failed to convince any that he is worthy of being an integral part of their plans.. It was arguably Steve McClaren who managed to get the best performances out of Shelvey, certainly in a Newcastle shirt, as he has hardly featured for the club since Benitez took over – despite being a Rafa signing from his time at Liverpool.
Rafa’s undoubted preferred formation is 4-2-3-1 and he often sets up with two players in front of the back four in what is often referred to as the double pivot role. Rafa is not alone in his preference for this formation and many of the top European coaches prefer to set up their teams this way.
However, the difference being that chasing titles is a very different scenario to battling relegation, or trying to stay in games and nick a goal like in a one-off cup game. As Newcastle are heavy favourites to win the championship this season they are required to approach games and the season as potential champions. They will be expected to take the game to the opposition in every single match, especially when teams visit St James Park where opposition teams will look to sit back and frustrate, especially if Newcastle United are on a good run and in good form.
There were huge improvements under Rafa Benitez at Newcastle last season and those improvements will hopefully continue, however the way the team approached games from the end of last season needs to change if they are to enjoy success.
This is where I believe Rafa’s preferred formation could fall short unless the correct personnel are employed in the right areas. Looking back at Rafa’s time in charge of Liverpool, or whenever you speak to Liverpool fans about Rafa Benitez, you will hear mostly positive comments about the man who led them to such historic success in Europe.
If there is one criticism that is often repeated, it is that he was often too defensive or cautious when Liverpool were chasing the title. Many believe that when Liverpool came up against Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United they needed to be more adventurous and look to gain three points at every opportunity. Liverpool lost too many points from draws against opposition in the lower half of the league that Manchester United would have beaten comfortably, once they got one or two goals ahead and the opposition were then chasing the game. Many Liverpool fans believe that it was these missed points that cost them the league title.
In a lot of these matches Rafa would set up with two defensive minded midfield players in the double pivot role, such as Lucas Leiva, Mohammed Sissoko or Javier Mascherano. Most Liverpool supporters would suggest that they often enjoyed most success when one of the more defensive minded players were paired alongside Xabi Alonso, who was one of Benitez’s best signing at the club. Alonso’s vision and passing ability sitting in front of the back four allowed Liverpool to turn defence into attack quickly without losing momentum, in a similar way that Cesc Fabregas and Michael Carrick have set up attacks for Chelsea and Manchester United over the years.
With Steven Gerrard in the ten role often employed behind Fernando Torres as the number nine, it was a formula that proved hugely successful for Liverpool until Xabi Alonso was allowed to leave Liverpool for the Bernabeu.
For Newcastle to succeed in winning the championship this season, or at the very least finishing second and claiming automatic promotion, I believe Jonjo Shelvey (ED: This article written before Shelvey was star man for Newcastle v Brighton) has an integral part to play in how Newcastle United are set up. This is of course unless a player in this mould who is better than Shelvey is signed before the transfer window closes. There does not seem to be many of these players around who can perform this role and still add some bite in the tackle in the middle of the park, certainly not many Englishmen.
We can presume that Mohammed Diame has been brought in to compete with Ayoze Perez, or even Moussa Sissoko, playing in the number 10 role that Gerrard made such a success of in his time at Liverpool. Isaac Hayden has started the season superbly and looks an excellent signing by Rafa, he could really develop into a superb complete box to box midfielder. His spot on the team sheet as one of the double pivot midfielders seems assured so it looks like Shelvey is vying for a central midfield role with Jack Colback and Vurnon Anita, presuming Tiote is sold before the window closes.
Anita is an interesting player and has already proved his versatility this season by going to right back and this has seemed to have impressed Benitez. Benitez could therefore rotate the four midfielders (Hayden, Shelvey, Colback and Anita) depending on the opposition and the scoreline with Colback coming off the bench and shoring things up, while also giving Hayden or Shelvey a rest when holding a lead. Alternatively Colback or Anita could start alongside Hayden in some of the tougher away games, with Shelvey coming on to add some creative spark if Newcastle are struggling to break a team down.
Whichever way it goes, I believe Shelvey still has a very important role to play this season for Newcastle United. As if Newcastle start too many games with Hayden employed alongside either Colback or Anita, the team may lack creativity and struggle to break teams down and drop crucial points in the chase for promotion like Liverpool did under Rafa.
Alternatively Rafa could go out this week and look to sign a top class midfield man who can play this role alongside Hayden. Did Rafa ever meet Andrea Pirlo when he was manager at Napoli?