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Is Jonjo Shelvey Newcastle United’s most important player?

Such is life in the Championship that a 6-0 victory against a promotion rival can be followed by a disappointing 2-0 loss to lesser opposition some at home some five days later. It led to Rafa Benitez opining that his team needs to become use to being “the head of a mouse and not the tail of a lion.” The same could also be said of the clubs most important, and arguably its best, player – Jonjo Shelvey.

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On the back of the 6-0 victory against QPR on Tuesday, Shelvey; who scored twice, noted that he felt on “top of his game.” Against Wolves last weekend he was anything but, erratic in possession, trigger happy in attack and defensively indisciplined – and the team suffered. Whilst he; and indeed the wider team, exorcised some demons in the same fixture in the League Cup only a few days later, the last three games have offered some perspective on just how important Shelvey is to this Newcastle side.

Although Rafa Benitez would never publicly make the comparison, it clear he expects Shelvey to fill the Xabi Alonso (deep lying playmaker/quarterback) role within his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. From a skills standpoint, Shelvey certainly has the awareness and passing range to do so. Eight league games into the season, the former Liverpool man has been accurate on 81% of his passes, which is all the more impressive considering he owns the longest outfield passing average and has made the most passes.

Aside from Matt Ritchie (15) and Ayoze Perez (13), he has also created the most clear cut chances (11) for his team mates whilst chipping in with three goals – the pick of which was his first against QPR. To top it off, and despite his wasteful shooting performance against Wolves, he has also been accurate with 50% of his shots.

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Shelvey’s expanded role has however, placed some new pressures upon him. Two teams, league leading Huddersfield and Wolves; both whom specifically schemed around limiting Shelvey, had great success and unsurprisingly beat Newcastle as a result. Such is Shelvey’s importance, exasperated by the lack of a true no.10 in front of him and other creative options next to him, that it is essential for The Magpies that he becomes more adept at dealing with defensive systems designed to stop him.

Whilst we all know Xabi Alonso for his passing prowess and playmaking ability under Benitez, he was also an extremely combative and competent defensive presence, something we can’t say presently about Shelvey. Under Benitez, he has only won 33% of his tackles (compared to 57% for Jack Colback) and he’s lost 73% of his aerial duels.

Shelvey spent a lot of the summer working on his body and fitness but at present he still often leaves his central midfield partner with too much work to do. In his two worst games of the season, against Huddersfield and Wolves, he proved particularly ineffective in shielding the back four.

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In short, when Shelvey plays well Newcastle do too. Indeed, there is no one else in the Newcastle squad that can do what he does. Positively, he looks to be enjoying the faith and role that Benitez has bestowed upon him and has worked hard to minimise his weaknesses. With a presumed eye on a place in Sam Allardyce’s England, it will be up to Shelvey, as he develops and gets more comfortable with what Benitez asks of him, to cement himself as the team’s driving force this season and beyond.

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