Jonjo Shelvey's high-risk, high-reward football is quintessentially British
Every year, Time Magazine names their "Person of the Year." It's a curious award, famously not (as the name might imply) intended to reward someone who has necessarily done something positive, but simply to highlight someone who has, "for better or for worse... done the most to influence the events of the year." It's an interesting variation upon typical award criteria. Good? Bad? It doesn't matter. They've done something major. If football were to follow the same criteria -- man of the match awards, for example -- you'd have a very different type of player collecting gongs.
A regular recipient would be Jonjo Shelvey. In this respect, the Newcastle midfielder is the ultimate footballer, his contributions oscillating between the sublime and the ridiculous, prompting a likeness to both Andrea Pirlo and Mr. Bean within the same match.
The prime example came four years ago, when Shelvey was at Swansea. For the visit of his former club, Liverpool, the midfielder produced one of the most remarkable performances in Premier League history. First, he opened the scoring from close-range, having miscued an attempted 30-yard volley in such clumsy fashion that it turned into an improvised dribble past two opponents. Shortly afterwards, under no pressure at all, played a staggeringly weak back-pass that Daniel Sturridge converted. The score was 1-1 and Shelvey had been responsible for both goals. The game was three minutes old.
Next, midway through the first half, Shelvey played a terrible cross-field pass straight to Liverpool loanee Victor Moses, who dribbled towards goal and scored. But Shelvey, determined to make up for two significant errors, had the last laugh: he orchestrated a passing move from deep and then stormed into the penalty box to flick the ball on for Michu, who fired home. 2-2. The first goal scored by Shelvey, the other three "assisted" by Shelvey.
It wasn't quite as eventful as Chris Nicholl's legendary display for Aston Villa against Leicester in 1976, when the centre-back managed to score all four goals in a 2-2 draw, but it was a decent effort. Brilliantly, Shelvey was handed the man-of-the-match award but proceeded to use the post-match interview to apologise to Swansea's supporters for his two glaring mistakes. But in a Time Magazine kind of way, the man-of-the-match award was entirely justified. For better or for worse, Shelvey had done the most to influence the events.
Shelvey is more than simply a novelty player. He's among the most gifted long-range passers in the Premier League, demonstrated by his lovely through-ball for Joselu's (admittedly fortunate) finish against Liverpool on Sunday. Shelvey's first thought when receiving possession is to search for potential diagonal balls while a short sideways pass is always his back-up option, rather than his immediate instinct. He's also naturally a direct runner, pushing forward whenever possible to become involved in attacking moves rather than holding his midfield position. He's an old-school box-to-box player.
Rather than the tactical, methodical games you find at the Premier League level, Shelvey is actually much more suited to the Championship. There, he was considered "the best player I've ever seen at this level" by QPR manager Ian Holloway, a veteran of the second tier. There, Shelvey can genuinely run matches but in the top tier, midfielders need more intelligence.
"There's so much to like about him and he's got so much to offer," said Graeme Souness this week. "He will stand up to someone, he has a pass, he has technique, but he has the exploding head he must control." The expression 'exploding head' is not an established cliche but feels somehow appropriate.
Ultimately, Shelvey's head, rather than his feet, remains the issue. Again, he's indicated a willingness to improve in a mental respect and started seeing a psychologist last year having been sent off for kicking out at an opponent. But when he was dismissed for stamping on Dele Alli in Newcastle's opening game of this season, it felt like he was back to square one, having not learned his lesson.
Shelvey seems uncoachable: no-one can stop Shelvey wanting to do it all himself. He spent two-and-a-half years at Swansea City, who were all about short passing, patient possession and good positional discipline. Shelvey remained a maverick. Now he's playing under Rafael Benitez, a classic example of a manager who wants structure and organization. But Shelvey remains prone to moments of madness and plays the type of extravagant, cross-field passes that Benitez probably considers something like "low-percentage balls.
That type of calculation, however, just isn't part of Shelvey's thinking. Sometimes it means incisive, defence-splitting passes; sometimes it looks like hopeless concessions of possession when he's wildly out of position. Introducing Shelvey as a substitute, as Benitez has done a couple of times this season, is like going "double or nothing," increasing your chances of scoring as well as your chances of conceding: he's the randomness in the equation.
In truth, Shelvey might be the most typically British player in the Premier League. This is a footballing nation that traditionally shuns No. 10s, believes holding midfielders don't offer enough going forward and gets frustrated by players who only pass sideways. British football is about energetic, up-and-down players. Positional responsibilities are considered secondary to running: for example, see Aaron Ramsey's peculiar display in Arsenal's 4-0 thrashing at Anfield earlier in the season, in which he constantly found himself ahead of the ball when passing moves broke down, inviting Liverpool to counter-attack through the centre.
Shelvey and Ramsey are essentially very high-class versions of the type of player you can witness every Saturday up and down the footballing pyramid, a one-man-band in the Steven Gerrard mould. It brings to mind comments from legendary Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi, with reference to Gerrard and players who offer "strength, passion, technique and athleticism" but lack "knowing how-to-play-football." But that's the whole beauty of Shelvey: the sheer off-the-cuff nature, the unpredictability, the brilliance and the haplessness juxtaposed.
In a Premier League season seemingly full of mediocre mid-table sides, few players will provide more entertainment in otherwise dull matches.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.