Jonjo Shelvey vs. Liverpool, and when average goes crazy

Michael Steele

Sometimes, for one day, average players become great. In rarer cases, they become great for both teams.

Jonjo Shelvey is an average Premier League player. On Monday, he decided he was more than that, went crazy and attempted to take over a game by himself. The results were awesome: He was the key component in four goals. Two for each team.

He wasn't always average.

When Shelvey made his debut for Charlton Athletic at 16 years old, plenty of people guessed that he would completely take over a Premier League game by the time he was 21. He's been a key player for England youth teams since 2007 and looked like an absolute coup for Liverpool when he arrived there for just £1.7 million up front, thanks to Charlton's crippling financial problems and their need to take just about any significant offers for players.

He slowly progressed at Liverpool, was impressive in a loan spell at Blackpool in the 2011-12 season and was expected to make a big step up last season under Brendan Rodgers. That step up that never came and Shelvey was sold to Swansea City for £5 million. If Liverpool were told back in 2010 that they would eventually sell Shelvey for £5 million, they would have been bitterly disappointed. In 2013, most of their supporters were happy that any team wanted to pay that much.

Players like Jonjo Shelvey -- decent, marginal players who are obviously good enough to play in the top flight but clearly not good enough for a team competing for a Champions League place -- usually aren't the big story for more than a few minutes when they come up against their former clubs. But on Monday, Shelvey did something remarkable. He tried to play outside his limits and the world got to see what happens when an unspectacular player attempts to do something spectacular virtually every time he touches the ball.

Even if a player like Shelvey scores a game-winning goal, it hardly stands out beyond anyone thinking "that was cool". This is mostly because fans care about the clubs they support and the game's biggest stars. No one besides Liverpool fans, Swansea fans, the player's family and perhaps a smattering of Charlton fans really care about the trials and tribulations of Jonjo Shelvey, and the same can be said about hundreds of players in his situation.

Last season, when Robin van Persie suited up for Manchester United against Arsenal, he was the entire story of the match because he's Robin van Persie. He saved Arsenal from descent into the Europa League seemingly singlehandedly, then demanded a transfer because he felt the club lacked ambition. He got that transfer, then continued playing like one of the best players on earth for one of the biggest clubs on earth. His games against Arsenal felt like a big deal because they were a big deal.

It's not insulting to Shelvey to say that he is much less of a big deal, but he was the heavy focus of the pre-game buildup television coverage. No one hinted that Shelvey held any animosity towards Liverpool, but there was still an odd implication from everyone that this game was a really, really big deal to him.

Then he scored. A mere 87 seconds into the match, Shelvey put Swansea ahead with a one-of-a-kind individual goal that featured a comical whiff, then an amazing dribbling move, then a blocked shot, and then finally a finish. NBC Sports Network commentator Arlo White, who was doing play-by-play on the American feed of the match, absolutely lost his mind.

White is about as professional as they come (and an admitted Leicester City supporter), so his excitement probably didn't have anything to do with any sort of bias. He was genuinely surprised and excited in a way that people generally don't get surprised or excited by much that Shelvey does. He's a decent, but thoroughly average player. That's why he got sold to Swansea for £5 million.

That's also why everyone just sort of chuckled when, two minutes later, he handed Liverpool a free equalizer. With seemingly no good forward passing options, he turned to pass back to his goalkeeper without looking and inadvertently played a flawless through ball to Daniel Sturridge, who made it 1-1.

But the Shelvey show was just starting. Before the end of the first half, he directly set up another goal for Liverpool, finding Victor Moses with a pass so bad that it looked like he picked out Moses intentionally. He made up for it in the second half with an impressive assist, winning a header and flicking the ball backwards to Michu, who leveled the match at 2-2, where it would finish.

Shelvey's post-match interview was an odd one. If you were expecting him to laugh off his errors after picking up the game-tying assist or act like he felt redeemed in any way, you'll be disappointed. Hat tip to Reddit for the link, and apologies if you have to listen to everything Shelvey says five times to understand him. I did a double-take when he said "I showed a bit of character". Is that a thing that a 21-year-old actually said about himself?

The most interesting part of this -- besides his really depressing body language -- is what he had to say about Liverpool and his celebration after he scored.

"I didn't really want to celebrate because obviously because I was at Liverpool, I've got respect for the fans and I loved every minute being there, but it's hard not to show your emotions."

No player is going to trash a former club and that club's fans unless he was treated extremely unfairly, so this is more or less a stock quote that every professional footballer has in their arsenal. It's not fair to call Shelvey a liar, but he did celebrate when most players show restraint

Then there's an incident with Lucas about 15 minutes before he set up the equalizer, in which the two got in a bit of a shoving match over a late challenge and both picked up yellow cards. The referee took his time talking to his assistant, lecturing both players and making them know they were lucky to not get sent off.

The way he played the entire game also suggested that he had a bit of an ax to grind. Images below via Squawka.



That's a heck of a lot of ambitious long passes that went absolutely nowhere. Watching the game live, it looked like he was hitting them with a lot of purpose, even if they didn't have much direction and weren't based on good decisions. He looked like he wanted to play the ball of his life with almost every touch, and that shot chart doesn't even show a pair of whiffs on overly ambitious volley attempts.

His attitude -- whether it had to do with pure ambition, spite for Liverpool or both -- led directly to Moses' goal. The Sturridge goal came on a mental error that could have happened to anyone, but the Moses goal, which is the pass from the second-deepest position in his own half on his passing chart, is directly attributable to Shelvey trying too hard to do something great.

If you've ever wondered what would happen if a solid but unspectacular, middle-of-the-road player was hyper-motivated beyond his normal capabilities and attempted to take over a game by himself, you now have your answer. Games can be taken over by individuals who are not the most technically or physically gifted, but at the highest level of football, teams are severely punished when there is a massive gap between their players' ambition and ability level.

All of the on-pitch evidence suggests that Shelvey cared about showing up Liverpool more than most players care about showing up their former clubs. The reason why is anyone's guess, but it's obvious that it wasn't just another game for him.

Shelvey tried to do everything, and his ambition turned what might have been a 0-0 game otherwise into a highly entertaining and memorable match with four goals. In 20 years, we'll get to hear Issy Clarke narrating over a "Where are they now?" package during halftime of a game. They'll show the highlights and we'll laugh about the one time that Jonjo Shelvey was the sole creator of every goal in a 2-2 draw.

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