Should Newcastle's Jonjo Shelvey be rewarded with an England World Cup spot?
Newcastle made it four wins in a row with their 2-1 victory over Arsenal on Sunday with Jonjo Shelvey once again to the fore. Will the midfielder get his England chance? Gareth Southgate seems unconvinced but Shelvey offers something different, writes Adam Bate.
It was the 53rd minute that summed it up. Jonjo Shelvey gave the ball away cheaply by the touchline. Moments later he hit a lovely long ball to Ayoze Perez with his weaker left foot. It was the Shelvey story in seconds. The sloppiness that has characterised his game in the eyes of critics followed by the expansive passing range that showcases the best of his talents.
It is an unusual gift to be able to ping passes over distances of 60 yards or more. Seeing the angles. Weighting the delivery. It can be hard enough to spot what's required from the stands let along at pitch level but Shelvey hit seven accurate long passes in Newcastle's win over Arsenal, more than anyone else. He once again embraced the responsibility to create.
Shelvey hits an unusually high percentage of his passes into the final third.
That desire to play progressive passes for his team is what sets Shelvey apart. Only two midfielders in the Premier League play more passes per 90 minutes into the final third but both are regulars in top teams who see lots of the ball. Shelvey hits a far greater proportion - 27.7 per cent - of his passes into the final third. He is always looking to get Newcastle up the pitch.
It has been working well for Rafa Benitez's side but many are now wondering whether the same could be true of Gareth Southgate's England. There are limited options in midfield and few are in better form than Shelvey. Asked about his prospects on the eve of the Arsenal game, it is clear that a call-up would be welcome but also that hopes are not high.
"I would love to go to the World Cup," Shelvey told Sky Sports. "It would be such an amazing achievement and every kid's dream is to go to the World Cup and play for your country. But there is only so much I can do in terms of on the pitch and off it to get into that squad, and then it is down to the manager to select you."
Southgate continues to prefer Jake Livermore, despite his underwhelming form for West Brom, and awarded a debut to Burnley's Jack Cork against Germany. Both men are older than Shelvey but it seems that it is the Newcastle playmaker about whom Southgate's mind is made up. He turned to Bournemouth's Lewis Cook instead against Italy last month.
Not one of them offers what Shelvey brings. "My feeling is that, if he goes to Russia, he can be a great player," said Benitez recently. "It is not my job to talk about what Gareth Southgate has to do but what I like about Jonjo is that he's different to the players England already have and he can do a lot of things. He is different and can be good for any squad."
A quick perusal of the passing statistics at the weekend confirms what is obvious to the naked eye. Against Arsenal, the player to whom Shelvey hit more passes than anyone else was the team's striker Dwight Gayle. He was looking to get Gayle running at the opposition defence. Compare that to England's other options and the difference is clear.
Henderson's preferred pass in Liverpool's win over Bournemouth was to his team's right-back. Eric Dier's passing stats in Tottenham's defeat to Manchester City reveal this same trend. Cook was slightly different - he went to the Bournemouth left-back instead. Cork hit more passes to his own centre-back than to any Burnley midfielder or forward.
None of this is news to Southgate, of course. He explained the reasoning behind his thinking back in November. "I think Jonjo is a different type of player," he told reporters. "He plays deeper, receives very deep, plays almost in a quarterback position for his club. We were needing something a little bit different for these games."
It is true that Shelvey has made more unsuccessful long passes than any other Premier League midfielder - that quarter-back label is not without substance. But possession was not the problem for England at Euro 2016. Roy Hodgson's men saw 68 per cent of the ball against Iceland. Penetration was the issue. Finding that clever pass to unlock the defence.
This is the reason why the appetite for Jack Wilshere's presence in Russia persists. The concern is that he will be needed against the packed defences of Panama and Tunisia. Shelvey can play those passes too. In fact, he has the greater range so, if there is space in behind opponents, he can exploit that too. Jamie Vardy and the rest would relish that kind of service.
Even so, the signs are that Southgate sees Shelvey as a gamble. He prefers a more functional player in his midfield, recycling possession for the team. But if England's best-laid plans do not work out this summer, the real gamble could be looking to the bench in Russia and seeing a plethora of like-for-like replacements rather than the unique gifts of Jonjo Shelvey.