Jonjo Shelvey: Mercurial playmaker with the world at his feet or hot-headed midfield player that will always be best remembered for his peculiar "glasses" goal celebration, which Liverpool fans have been treated to a fair few times already this season?
Well, that is the tough judgement call that Reds manager Brendan Rodgers will soon be forced to make about the bald-headed 21-year-old, although like many of the club’s supporters, even the Northern Irishman appears divided about whether the England international has a future at Anfield.
Just last July, the recently installed Liverpool head coach awarded the youngster a new long-term contract with the club in a show of faith that appeared to signal that his future very much lay on Merseyside, with the player himself keen to stress just how much he was looking forward to working with the former Swansea City manager.
“The gaffer and his way of playing will suit me down to the ground and hopefully I can be in his plans,” Shelvey said of Rodgers upon agreeing to his new deal.
“I think he's [Rodgers] great. With all the passing drills he's doing, he's encouraging us to play all the time which is nice for a football player.”
And, for the first half of this season, it appeared very much as though Shelvey was indeed a Rodgers type of player: comfortable in possession of the ball, with a good range of passing abilities and a high technical level that allowed the player to seamlessly operate in a number of different positions right across the midfield, as well as even in the "hole" supporting lone front man Luis Suarez at a time when the club were struggling badly for numbers in attacking areas.
Shelvey’s impressive form caught the eye of England boss Roy Hodgson, who called him up for the Three Lions’ World Cup qualifier against San Marino at Wembley last October, with the midfield player even appearing late on to win his first senior cap.
In fact, the 21-year-old made 14 Premier League appearances for Liverpool up until Christmas, as well as scoring four goals in the club’s run to the knockout phase of the Europa League, at the time making him the second top scorer in the competition behind only Edinson Cavani and Raul Bobadilla.
Things were going well. Life was looking good, with first-team starts now a regular occurrence under Rodgers, who in turn was being rewarded with mature displays on the field of play, as well as goals and assists.
And even a moment of madness against arch-rivals Manchester United at Anfield in the Premier League last September—when Shelvey was harshly dismissed for a two-footed lunge on Jonny Evans, only to compound that error in judgment by lashing out at United manager Sir Alex Ferguson on the touchline with some finger-jabbing antics—did not distract from his on-field accomplishments.
However, things can change so quickly in football that no matter how well you are playing or how good you are feeling about your game, whether you are Steven Gerrard or Jonjo Shelvey, the fickle hand of fate is never too far away, as the midfield player was soon to discover.
Whether that red card against United was the catalyst for Shelvey’s subsequent downturn in fortunes is hard to know, although at a club the size of Liverpool with so many word-class players fighting for so few starting places, it is never a good idea to be out of the spotlight for three games through suspension.
The player himself pinpoints the turning point of his season of two halves as being the 3-1 loss at Stoke City on Boxing Day: “I played against Stoke and obviously I didn't have too great a game. I had a few personal issues that were going on in my life. I didn't think I was the only one that had a bad game that day but I was the one that suffered if you know what I mean."
Shelvey feels he was unfairly made a scapegoat by Rodgers for Liverpool’s limp display at the Britannia in December, and the stats would back him up on that, with the midfield player’s next top-flight start not arriving until West Bromwich Albion came to Anfield in February. In all competitions since the turn of the year, he has appeared in just four games for the Reds.
And what’s more, that one and only Premier League start against the Baggies saw Shelvey hauled off by Rodgers just an hour into a game the home side surprisingly lost 2-0, resulting in an ugly rant on Twitter with Liverpool fans, who the midfield player labelled as “keyboard warriors who haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about” after he had received a barrage of criticism for his performance.
All of which has led to a flood of stories of late linking Shelvey with a possible £7 million summer move to Stoke City (via the Daily Mail) as the player’s appearances, even as a substitute, have become few and far between, especially since the January arrivals of both Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, as well as the continued revival in form of fellow midfield players Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson.
Is Shelvey good enough to stay at Anfield?
Not only that, but Shelvey will need to prepare himself mentally for more top-level additions of the quality of, say, Christian Eriksen (via the Sun) to rival his position at Anfield this summer; that is, if he is still a Liverpool player by then.
Of course, if it was up to Shelvey, he would remain on Merseyside as similar to United, the only way is down career wise after leaving a club the size of Liverpool. However, unfortunately it will be Rodgers making the judgement calls at the end of the season, and the signs are not looking promising for the 21-year-old, with the Reds now a very different team from the one he was starting for just a few months ago.
At present, Shelvey is clearly not good enough to start in Liverpool’s midfield. And while he is also struggling to win a place on the substitutes’ bench, the competition that was touched on earlier will only become fiercer after the club conduct their summer transfer business.
None of which is a slight on the player’s abilities or his future career prospects at the very highest levels of the game either, as anyone who has seen either his long-range volley against Chelsea at Anfield last May or his sumptuous free-kick goal for the England Under-21s against Austria in a friendly earlier this month will attest to.
But a regular member of what is threatening to be a really high-class Liverpool midfield in the years to come? I am afraid I just cannot see that…