For most of 2020, the focus has been on Matty Longstaff and his contract situation. This has led to the difficult season of Sean Longstaff going largely under the radar.
It would be foolish to write the older brother off, but he will be hoping for more consistency during the 2020/21 season. At the age of 22, he should be considered as a regular starter for years to come. The task for Steve Bruce is to find a role for him in the team.
That seemed to be the biggest issue for him during the last 12 months. Although injuries and transfer speculation impacted on Longstaff’s form, he wasn’t given a sustained run under Bruce. This was due to Isaac Hayden and Jonjo Shelvey being favoured in the central midfield positions for large periods of the season.
Unless one of them departs during the current transfer window, it would be a surprise to see Bruce move away from that. The pair mesh well in the middle of the park, with Hayden offering the energy and ball-winning qualities in central areas. Meanwhile, Shelvey needs to be in the team as one of the few players capable of creating from deep.
This creates an issue for Longstaff. According to FB Ref (powered by Statsbomb), he averaged 4.2 tackles and interceptions per ninety minutes. This is slightly higher than Hayden (4.0). That said, Longstaff was dribbled past 34 times, which was more than any player in the squad.
The 22-year-old averaged 2.02 shot creating actions per ninety minutes. This is less than Shelvey (2.55). The quality of Shelvey is best represented by passes into the final third, in which he leads by quite some distance with 128 with an average of 5.4 every 90 minutes. This dwarfs Longstaff’s average of 2.7 passes into the final third every ninety minutes.
However, he isn’t as good at defending as Hayden or creating as Shelvey. Bruce prefers to have the specialist qualities of that pair rather than start with a hybrid version in Longstaff.
The challenge for Longstaff will be to oust one of the pair from the first-team, or find a different role. The former seems the most likely and it will be Hayden most under threat. As can be seen above, he is nowhere near the creative levels of Shelvey and in a team as poor as ours, we can’t afford to lost that quality.
Alternatively, he may believe he can star in a more advanced role, due to his reading of the game and shooting quality. An average of 1.7 shots per ninety is higher than Miguel Almiron (1.64) and at times, Longstaff has been used in the number ten role.
In our FA Cup win at Oxford United and 4-1 win at Bournemouth, he showed that he could play the role successfully with a goal in each game.
When he broke into the first team, he was seen to be the next Michael Carrick in the middle of the park. In the system used by Rafa Benitez, he thrived next to Isaac Hayden. However, in the slightly more chaotic system used by Bruce, we need the creativity of Shelvey.
It might be that the long-term future of Longstaff is as an advanced midfielder with Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron either side. This would also give Bruce the option to move to a midfield three during a match should the match situation warrant it.
Regardless of what happens throughout the rest of the transfer window off the pitch, next season is shaping up to be a huge one for Sean Longstaff on it.