With the exception of Joelinton, no Newcastle United player seems to divide fan opinion quite like Jonjo Shelvey. Is he our best midfielder? Is he a luxury we can't afford? Is he a victim of coaching and formation? Is it time to move on? Is he irreplaceable?
Signed in January 2016 for £12 million, the midfielder has gone on to make 113 league starts for the club as well as taking on the role of captain sporadically over this period. He finished last season as the club's top league scorer with 6, bringing his total number of league goals for the club to 13.
Of course, the midfielder wasn't bought to score goals and it is his passing and creativity that seems to appeal to coaches and fans alike:
'He can produce some unbelievable forward passes.'
'Nobody can argue he is a tremendous passer of the ball.'
'Very few players these days have his range of passing.'
Using statistics from fbref.com I looked back on Shelvey's Newcastle league career to see whether the data backs up this perception or if the bright lights of the Hollywood passes have blinded his audience.
Over the course of his Newcastle career, Jonjo has assisted 17 goals in the league and this averages out as one assist every 594 minutes (6.6 games). For comparison, Jordan Henderson's Liverpool career has produced an assist every 554 minutes (6.2 games). Closer to home, Yohan Cabaye had a Newcastle average of an assist every 585 minutes (6.5 games) and Joey Barton an assist every 435 minutes (4.8 games).
'I always thought the assist statistics are a little harsh on him. Quite often he’d play the ball out wide, it’s then come back in resulting in a goal. Because he’d played the penultimate ball he wouldn’t get credit for the assist. He's more of a key passer than delivering the final ball.'
Note that the detailed analytical data used below is only available for the previous three full seasons as well as this season so far and only refers to league appearances. During this period, he made 6 of his 17 total assists (8 were in the Championship season prior to this and 3 in his first season with Newcastle).
This data shows that Shelvey has been involved in 13 goal creating actions over this period. These are the two offensive actions leading directly to a goal, so also account for the pass before the assist. As Newcastle isn't exactly a free-scoring team, I then looked at shot-creating actions rather than goals to account for the lack of goal scorers in front of him. Although, it is worth noting that he did only record one league assist in 1994 minutes for Liverpool so a lack of direct assists isn't necessarily a result of Newcastle's lack of striking prowess.
Shelvey is listed as completing 121 live-ball passes that led to a shot attempt over the period covered in the data (5678 minutes), averaging one every 47 minutes or roughly two per game. The dead-ball figure is one every 142 minutes (1.6 games). Again, Newcastle's non-attacking style obviously plays a part in these figures so they aren't necessarily a reflection on him as an individual.
In terms of the accuracy of his passing, over this period, Shelvey has an average of 70%. For comparison, Miguel Almirón's is 76%, Isaac Hayden's is 78%, Sean Longstaff's 79%, Joelinton's 80% and last season Nabil Bentaleb's was 86%. Of course, the high-risk / high-reward passes are more likely to go astray and that needs to be taken into account when considering pass accuracy but 70% is considerably lower than the overall team average of 74%.
I then looked at his total passing distance, which is the distance he passes the ball in any direction on the pitch, and then calculated the percentage of that distance which was classed as progressive (passing the ball towards the opponent's goal). His average percentage at Newcastle is 36%, meaning 36% of his passes are towards the opponent's goal. Broken down by season, this number was above his average with Benitez as manager and below his average with Bruce:
2017-18 season = 37%
2018-19 season = 40%
2019-20 season = 33%
2020-21 season = 32%
For comparison, Isaac Hayden and Sean Longstaff both have a progressive passing percentage of 23%. So, as expected, Shelvey is certainly the most progressive of Newcastle's central midfield options with his passing.
I then broke down his passes into three categories: short (< 5 yards); medium (5 - 25 yards) and long (> 25 yards). There is very little variability season to season with these percentages and his overall average is 2% short, 51% medium and 47% long. Newcastle's average last season was 4% short, 63% medium and 33% long, so Shelvey hits considerably more long passes than the team as a whole.
In terms of carrying the ball, an issue widely written about as a need in Newcastle's central midfield, when analysing which players made progressive carries (moving the ball towards the opponent's goal) last season, 48% of Shelvey's carries were classed as progressive. Isaac Hayden's number, surprisingly, was 49%. Nabil Bentaleb and the Longstaff brothers all recorded 39%. Clearly, a squad weakness in that position. In terms of the total distance of progressive carries, unsurprisingly Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almirón were the top two players last season. The central midfield issue highlighted further by Fabian Schär recording 500 metres more than Shelvey.
Of course, a midfielder's role is more than what they do with the ball and Shelvey's performance when out of possession is often criticised by fans:
'For me, he doesn't work hard enough and when he loses the ball he tends to sulk and go missing.'
'I think the issue is pace and how he can be easily bypassed or has to foul to break up attacks.'
'He's not consistent enough and,I'm not sure if its just me, but he looks (especially recently) constantly knackered when he plays. There's times he looks like he's out for a Sunday morning stroll along the beach.'
In the 5678 league minutes Shelvey has played since these statistics were available, he has made 45 interceptions and won 53 tackles. That's one interception every 126 minutes (1.4 games) and one successful tackle every 107 minutes (1.2 games). Compare this to Isaac Hayden, who makes one interception every 93 minutes and one successful tackle every 74 minutes. Of course, Hayden is in the midfield for this role so this shouldn't be too much of a surprise.
Shelvey is recorded as making 885 pressures (applying pressure to an opposing player who is receiving, carrying or releasing the ball) over that period. That's one pressure every 6 minutes. Of these, only 23% were successful (defined as the team regaining possession within five seconds of the pressure), meaning that he makes one successful pressure every 28 minutes. Compare this to Isaac Hayden, who also makes one pressure every 6 minutes but has a success rate of 26%, resulting in a successful pressure every 25 minutes. Surprisingly little difference between the two in this category.
However, despite Hayden making more tackles, more interceptions and more successful pressures, there is one defensive statistic that stands out when comparing the two. Shelvey has committed 113 fouls resulting in free-kicks during his 5678 league minutes and drawn 22 fouls. This averages out at one foul committed every 50 minutes and one foul drawn every 258 minutes (2.9 games), meaning he is 5.2 times more likely to concede a free-kick than to win one. Compare this with Isaac Hayden, who is only 2.7 times more likely to concede a free-kick than to win one. Considering the fact that 32% of the goals Newcastle conceded last season were from set pieces, this is an alarming statistic.
Of course, football can't be analysed purely on numbers and statistics as they do not take into account the value of a pass or a tackle in terms of the result of an individual game or season. Those valuable moments stand out in fans' minds, though, and perhaps that is why the divide exists when judging Shelvey.
If you look at the numbers, they're unremarkable but his highlights have been remarkable. His consecutive goals against Manchester City, Sheffield United and Southampton last season helped Newcastle take an invaluable seven points from those three games. Those marks in the goal column don't reflect the overall value of those contributions and that's important to remember when doing any kind of statistics-based analysis of a player.
However, Shelvey is a dying breed in terms of a Premier League central midfield player and this was demonstrated when I couldn't think of another in the league to do direct comparisons with in terms of his style. It seems as though ball winners, short passers and ball carriers are the go-to combinations in the middle and Shelvey does none of these things particularly well. Newcastle's links with Soumaré and Sangaré are not by coincidence and this has clearly been highlighted as a first team need.
It's hard to imagine either of the Longstaff brothers or Jeff Hendrick drastically changing the dynamic of the midfield duo and therefore, for now, Newcastle lack an alternative. Despite having the numbers in that position, none stand out as an obvious improvement on Jonjo and it is therefore unlikely that central midfield will improve until a new player is bought. Then, perhaps if Newcastle played a 4-3-3 and used one of those targets alongside Shelvey and Hayden, we would see the best from him but, unless that day arrives, it seems as though we will continue to be divided on him:
'He was on his way out until Bruce arrived. Brilliant on his day, but that’s a rare thing. A luxury we can’t afford in our position.'
'My thoughts are that we get a true box-to-box midfielder and either keep Shelvey for a change of pace bench role, or sell him. It's just not a consistent way to play.'
'He's definitely got talent but I've always felt he could do more. Are we hard on him because we know he can do it and expect it from him? I think I am.'
'He's one of a kind nowadays...what a footballer used to be like before the over-dramatics, in my opinion. So disappointing that our fans don’t appreciate him more. '