How Jonjo Shelvey overcame himself to soar with Swansea – and perhaps England
It's September 2012 and Manchester United have beaten Liverpool 2-1 at Anfield. In a game of tight margins, Jonjo Shelvey's red card had proved decisive and his ugly lunge on Jonny Evans equipped the visitors with a numerical advantage that they would take full advantage of. It was a moment which encapsulated Shelvey's young career; the tackle was rash and foolish, but the defining memory of that afternoon was the angry verbal tirade he aimed at the Red Devils' bench on his way off the pitch.
It was hot-headed petulance and a moment which characterised the player for many months afterwards.
Less than a year later, Shelvey moved to Swansea City. Michael Laudrup was continuing the club's modern tradition of possession-based football and, in South Wales, the player found a home where his first-team opportunities were greater and the lights less bright.
- Date of birth: February 27, 1992
- Place of birth: Harold Hill, London
- Height: 6ft 1in
- Position: Midfielder
- Current club: Swansea (65 apps, 9 goals)
- International: England (1 caps, 0 goals)
New club, same story. Not only was Shelvey's first season at Swansea stained by boorish petulance, but his performances were frequently chaotic in nature. He was a give-and-take sort of player, someone who could do as much harm as good and for every positive moment he produced in his new shirt, there was a corresponding negative: some paper tiger posturing or an unwanted flash of immaturity.
Maybe the Shelvey dichotomy was best exemplified in a home game with Liverpool in September 2013. Inside the first 90 seconds, he had danced into the visitors' box, adjusted his feet beautifully, and stroked his new team into the lead. But, less than a minute later, an absent-minded back-pass split open his own defence and Daniel Sturridge gleefully accepted the gift. Half an hour later, he repeated the trick: Victor Moses picked off a mishit square ball, carried it 50 yards and drove Liverpool into the lead.
That, after an hour, he was able to provide the decisive flick which enabled Michu to equalise just completed the picture. It was the full Shelvey rainbow inside 90 minutes and it was also the kind of performance which was helping to downgrade his future.
Inside the first 90 seconds, he had danced into the visitors' box, adjusted his feet beautifully, and stroked his new team into the lead
Swansea don't sit in the Sky Sports media glare and so it has been easy to miss but, two years on from that bittersweet night, Jonjo Shelvey is definitely back on track.
In retrospect, Michael Laudrup's biggest error was to give the young player too much creative responsibility. Typically deployed behind a lone forward and in front of two cautious holding midfielders, Shelvey shouldered the weight of Swansea's playmaking burden.
While technically equipped for it, it was a challenge that his personality ultimately failed. Shelvey was too free and too unrestrained and his performances in those first 18 months at Swansea suffered. As is often the case with talented younger players, he struggled to find the balance between steady influence and structure-threatening exuberance. That was partly his fault, but it was also attributable to Laudrup: the Dane asked him to play a role which superficially suited his skill set, but probably not his emotional maturity.
Enter Garry Monk.
A balanced team
In the summer of 2014, Gylfi Sigurdsson was signed from Tottenham Hotspur and Ki Sung-yueng returned from his loan at Sunderland. Between them, they have provided the right framework for Shelvey. Sigurdsson is accomplished and emotionally comfortable with the responsibilities of a principal playmaker and Ki is a wonderfully smooth holding player whose reliability provides assurance to those who play ahead of him.
Shelvey has been able to sit between the two. Monk still encourages him to get forward but in a far more measured way than before. He has been given a stable midfield environment in which to work and far stricter parameters within which to operate.
Shelvey may now produce fewer spectacular moments, but his baseline influence on games is now far higher
It's a restricted role, but one in which he has been quietly excelling.
Shelvey may now produce fewer spectacular moments, but his baseline influence on games is now far higher. Not only is he touching the ball more often and playing more passes – currently 70.5 attempts per game versus season averages of 48.9 in 2014/15 and 50.4 in 2013/14 – but his distribution is also more tactically astute. Shelvey may have always had the ability to spread the ball around the pitch, but now he does it in the true 'quarterbacking' sense – and his recent performance at Stamford Bridge provided a clear example of that:
Shelvey's strength lies in his passing range and, with the more low-percentage duties now deferred to Sigurdsson, Monk has smartly isolated that quality. Without the responsibility of having to unlock defences and with the positional stability afforded by the players around him, Shelvey has been channeled towards providing rhythm control with the occasional flourish.
The graphic above illustrates that vividly: the range is eclectic, the switching of play is varied and, although there are some misplaced passes shown, none of his turnovers occurred in areas which put Swansea at risk. He is a more thoughtful player now: he directs moves, he shifts the focus of his team's attacks; the old haphazard fever which used to accompany everything he did is long gone.
The Stats Zone screen below, from his performance against Newcastle on August 15, shows how maturity now governs his middle-third distribution. It's the blue-collared accompaniment to his more ambitious range, the foundation ball movement upon which almost all attacking phases are built.
Shelvey may still be attack focused, but his midfield fundamentals are far sounder and, with the above range as testament, he can reasonably claim to be a very complete central player.
But Monk's influence on him has been more than just tactical. A significant turning point in Shelvey's career came in December 2014, after his manager very publicly criticised his application and attitude after a Boxing Day game against Aston Villa. While acknowledging the player's "frightening ability", Monk emphasised the need for him to develop a greater sense of responsibility.
It is about doing your job properly, understanding the role that you are playing, not just for yourself but for the team
“It's about doing your job properly, understanding the role that you're playing, not just for yourself but for the team. Jonjo has to learn very quickly from it, otherwise he won’t play games, it's as simple as that. I don’t want to be in that position where he gets a yellow and I’m thinking the rest of the game that there could be a sending off here.”
That left a mark on Shelvey and it has come to represent a waypoint in his career. Some would respond badly and, in this age of entitlement and ego, Monk was definitely playing a risky game. But, to the player's credit, there has been no evidence of a sulk and the ill-discipline to which his manager was referring has gradually dissipated.
Swansea and England
With these improvements will come another question, though: what of England?
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If Shelvey remains on his current trajectory, there's a very real argument for his involvement in next summer's European Championship. Within his midfield talent pool, Roy Hodgson has possession players and also dynamism, but – with the theoretical exception of the fragile Jack Wilshere – he doesn't have both qualities in the same player.
Shelvey, in his current form, exists between those lines. It pays to be different at international level and his progressive, reliable passing and ease on the ball makes him an intriguing twist on what is ultimately a very formulaic England recipe.
Hodgson is not an habitual risk taker and so maybe Shelvey remains an unlikely option next summer, but his development has been dramatic enough for him to at least be viable.