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Opinion

Eating humble pie with Jonjo Shelvey

11 months ago
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Jonjo Shelley is a player who loves proving his critics wrong..

On 30 November 2019, just after the team sheets for the day’s early kick-off were published by BBC Sport, an exasperated Newcastle fan took to Twitter. He left little doubt as to his feelings on the selection of one player:

“Bruce has picked Shelvey again and left both Longstaff brothers on the bench against Man City – a fixture where you can’t have passengers in midfield. I predict [Newcastle] will be 0-2 down by half time, at which point [Bruce] will have to admit it’s not working and replace Shelvey with Sean.”

We know the rest.

The tweet aged like milk as Jonjo Shelvey scored the crucial equalising goal with a stylish long-range finish. Since then he’s scored twice more to win six points for his team and cement his place as a mandatory pick for Steve Bruce. That tweeter has taken some stick from his mates and is only now putting his head above the parapet.

How do I know all this? Because the fool in question was me.

It’s hard to argue with the form of the Newcastle number eight: in the past few games he’s been a revelation, compounding the embarrassment for those that doubted him…but Shelvey has long been criticised for his style and attitude. He’s been called lazy, a luxury player, a “passenger in midfield.”

Against Norwich in August he made no tackles, no interceptions and committed no fouls against a newly-promoted side that ran riot against a passive Newcastle. In that game it seemed at times as though the men in black-and-white were playing with ten. Despite scoring a late consolation it was an abject display from Shelvey.

Shelvey’s erstwhile playing style was perfect for a team built on possession. His raking cross-field passes were often a joy to behold. But Newcastle are built on anti-possession, a kind of aversion to the ball.

In their six wins this season they have averaged 31%. Long, floated balls that allow opposition players time to regroup and reshape are decidedly off-message. What they need are hard balls into the channels for Miguel Almiron or Allain Saint-Maximin to run onto. It’s not pretty but it has proven effective.

There has been lots of pearl-clutching about this. Monday’s episode of the Guardian Football Podcast saw Flo Lloyd-Hughes claim positive results are “paving over the cracks” for Newcastle and George Elek claim that, against Aston Villa, “they were absolutely desperate [and] I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse Premier League team than that… It’s lucky for them that they’ve already got 22 points on the board.” Harsh words. But, as Watford, Stoke and Leicester’s champions proved, there is no ‘right’ way to play football.

It is true that Newcastle are rock bottom of the expected goals table, with a rating of just 12.56 across 16 games, and 28.35 expected goals against (fourth-worst in the division). That suggests their form is unsustainable and that Newcastle will score fewer goals and concede more in the long-term if they don’t start carving out more chances and stop allowing so many for opposition attackers.

But Newcastle have been deliberately set up to absorb pressure and make the most of the smallest of scraps in attack. Quietly, improbably, they have crept into third in the form table with 13 points from the last six games and a respectable 11th in the *actual* table, accruing 22 points with just 17 goals. Shelvey, of late, has been central to all of that.

This has taken hard work and harder tactics and Shelvey, more than any other Newcastle player, has had to adapt to this way of thinking. Before that late November game against Manchester City, Shelvey averaged 6.4 long balls per game, but only one tackle, 0.8 interceptions and 0.3 fouls: style over substance. Since then, he has performed a complete reversal, tackling 2.3 times, recovering the ball three times and committing 1.3 fouls per game.

He has adapted his game from expansive to hard-working. He’s attempting fewer long balls (five per game) and getting stuck in, in midfield. This is the kind of commitment to the cause that is essential for a team looking to play in Newcastle’s gritty, efficient style.

The Longstaff brothers’ performance in the win over Manchester United demonstrates a welcome strength in depth in central midfield. The Longstaffs are hardworking – more so than even the new-look Shelvey – but don’t consistently offer the final element: goals. Shelvey now has five in ten appearances and is Newcastle’s top scorer, justifying his place ahead of the two local lads. His range of passing has translated into a range of shots, as that stylish finish against City proved. Goals from midfield are especially important for a side whose strike force has proven so timid, with Almiron, Saint-Maximin and Joelinton managing just two goals between them so far this season.

Steve Bruce has adapted his thinking tactically following his disastrous opening matches in charge and deserves praise for this. Shelvey was a favourite in that early period, a symbol of his efforts to reshape Newcastle into a more fluid outfit. His tactical evolution was painful, but wholly necessary to get his team winning.

Shelvey has been through a similar period of growth, adding new elements to his game and forcing his way back into Bruce’s thinking after some time on the sidelines. His partnership with the excellent Isaac Hayden in midfield is now key to Newcastle’s chances of success in any given match and he has made pundits and commenters – this one included – eat humble pie as he delights in proving the doubters wrong.

Long may it continue!

(Stats from www.whoscored.com)

(Graeme also has his own website which you can visit here. or you follow him on twitter @graeme_hall)

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