Let me take you back a little bit. Saturday, August 27th 2016. Newcastle took to the field against promotion contenders Brighton and Hove Albion. A massive day in the Championship season, where the home side asserted their dominance early on. They blew Brighton away on that day.
That was when the season seemed to really take off for Rafa Benitez’s side, and it was one subtle tactical tweak that many pointed to as the reason for such a comprehensive victory.
Benitez is well-known to favour a 4231 formation, and he has stuck to that throughout the large majority of his stint on Tyneside.
That day was different though. Jonjo Shelvey was pushed forward, making the formation take on a much more 4141 look. Isaac Hayden is very good at what he does. Breaking up play, recycling possession and covering the space in between the defensive lines. Yes, in the Premier League, that task has become much more difficult. Whilst the England U-21 international is very promising, he is no N’Golo Kante. To ask him to do such a job at this level is probably a tad unrealistic and unfair too.
However, the emergence of a certain young Spaniard, Mikel Merino, has offered Benitez an alternative of the typical Hayden-Shelvey partnership that worked so well last season. In fact, you could even argue that Merino is more of an all-rounder than Shelvey is. He is taller, stronger and more balanced than the former Liverpool man.
So, where does that leave Jonjo?
Newcastle have a gaping hole in their team. I am a big fan of Ayoze Perez, but even I can admit that he has not pulled up any trees for a while now. Mo Diame is far too inconsistent. Neither of them are the solution to the “number ten” problem that has been there for years. Jonjo Shelvey is.
Try to put the Tottenham Hotspur debacle to the back of your mind for a second. The bottom line is, he is an exceptionally gifted footballer. The best we have at Newcastle, in my opinion. His natural ability to pass a football is ridiculous at times. There are very few in the Premier League that can do what he does. When Jonjo Shelvey is high up the pitch, that is when he is best. Whether it is that killer pass in behind, an arrowing shot at goal or a set-piece, that is when you stand up in expectation. Let’s have some more of that. The only thing missing from his game is goals. Five last season was perhaps a tad underwhelming.
Jonjo Shelvey has an excellent understanding with Matt Ritchie in particular, and having them closer together is another reason for pushing the former higher up the pitch. He is more capable of dealing with the physicality than Perez is, and is (much) better with his feet than Diame is. It all just makes sense.
Mikel Merino and Jonjo Shelvey on the same pitch? Yes please.