If selected to start in Euro 2016 qualifiers against San Marino and Switzerland, Jonjo Shelvey has the chance to prove he’s a viable alternative to Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere at the base of England’s midfield.
It’s been a fantastic start to the season for the prodigious playmaker. He’s not only been one of Swansea City’s best performers but also one of the Premier League’s, epitomised by his average of 3.5 created chances per match; the highest return of any player associated with the England set-up and trumped by only three players throughout the division – Arsenal duo Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla and Southampton’s Duscan Tadic.
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Although few doubt the 23 year-old’s natural talent, especially in terms of technique, question marks over his attitude and application have lingered since breaking onto the Premier League scene with Liverpool in 2010. Shelvey’s involvement in every goal during a 2-2 draw with his former employers in September 2013 summarised widespread opinion of the midfielder; that he possesses enough quality to play a pivotal role in victory, but also the sloppiness, laziness and naivety to be equally instrumental in defeat.
The Shelvey of 2015/16, however, has emerged as a considerably more mature figure, less cavalier in possession yet still determined to make vital contributions going forward. He produced an assist and a Man of the Match display in the 2-0 win over Newcastle and provided the killer pass that unravelled Chelsea on the opening day of the season – a measured, clinical and curling ball that unleashed Bafetimbi Gomis and ultimately committed goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to a red card offense.
The former Charlton Athletic youngster’s well-earned call-up to the England squad, even if dependent on injuries to Jack Wilshere and Fabian Delph, is validation of improvements displayed in the first four weeks of the new season. It’s also the chance to further demonstrate his maturity, this time on the international stage, and prove his importance to Roy Hodgson’s plans ahead of next summer’s European Championship.
Hodgson’s preferred midfield for the tournament seems largely set in stone. In the vast majority of the Three Lions qualifiers so far, they’ve lined up in either a diamond or a midfield trio with Jordan Henderson and Delph protecting Wilshere at the base. But the job of understudy to the Gunners midfielder is still open to applications, with the very real danger that yet another injury setback could rule him out of Euro 2016.
The anchoring role is perfect for the Swansea star. He and Wilshere are by no means like for like; the Arsenal midfielder is more agile on the ball and has made his ability to run at defences from deep positions a defining feature of England’s recent play – one that saw him net twice against Slovenia in June.
But whilst Shelvey lacks that dribbling ability, mobility and drive, his quality in possession has been head and shoulders above the rest of England’s midfield options this season. Wilshere’s mixed-range passing game is another asset Hodgon sees as vital to England’s pivot and Shelvey is more than capable of replicating it – perhaps even surpassing the recent efforts of his Emirates counter-part.
This term, for example, no home-grown player has averaged more than his 62 passes per match in the Premier League – or for that matter, his 196 successful passes overall – whilst the England international’s pitch-spanning drives are typical of a midfielder who grew up idolising Steven Gerrard and ideal for the Three Lions’ more direct style of play.
International football is of a completely different tempo to the Premier League and that’s what Shelvey could struggle with most – especially against San Marino who, despite representing little more than a training exercise, have a knack of disorientating opposition with their box-camping tactics. Arguably the biggest test of Shelvey’s maturity yet will be the level of patience he’s willing to show when breaking down the 192nd-FIFA-ranked opposition.
Likewise, he must demonstrate a higher defensive responsibility as England’s deepest-lying midfielder, even if his role as playmaker is a largely progressive one.
But nonetheless, with England just four points away from mathematically qualifying, the 23 year-old has the chance to prove he can step in for Wilshere, offering something a little different and arguably more conventional in the quarterback-esque position, without the pressure of essential results.
It’s a very important audition that could well decide his involvement in next summer’s tournament. Or spanning even further, his involvement with England under Roy Hodgson.