It’s fair to say that Sean Longstaff has had his fair share of ups and downs already at his boyhood club.
Breaking into the first team under Rafa Benitez and making his competitive debut against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup, before then his first Premier League appearance away to Liverpool as a second half substitute on Boxing Day of 2018.
He was a breath of fresh air, with a run of consistent impressive performances when starting alongside Isaac Hayden in early 2019, before injury curtailed his season. A stand out having been a great performance in the 2-1 home win over Man City, Sean Longstaff winning the penalty that decided the match.
However, after Rafa’s departure in summer 2019, he struggled to find consistent form once Steve Bruce came in. Obviously not helping either that Bruce rarely gave him a decent run in the starting eleven, Sean Longstaff only starting 37 of the former Head Coach’s 84 Premier League games whilst in charge at NUFC.
When he was selected by Steve Bruce, Sean Longstaff was subjected to a deep role, in a negative style of play, hindering his abilities.
During this period of instability and poor performances for the team in general, he was subject to criticism and abuse after he failed to impress, like many in the side at the time. This made his job even harder in what must have been a testing time for the Geordie lad.
After the new ownership saw a change in management it gave him a chance to prove his worth and I for one think he has done so.
Sean Longstaff made his first Premier League start under Howe at home to Manchester United in December of 2021, a spirited performance where the Magpies arguably should have come away with a win, but instead ended with a respectable 1-1 draw with Longstaff providing the assist to Allan Saint-Maximin’s opener.
Despite this, he was most often found on the bench because of a Joe Willock, Jonjo Shelvey and Joelinton midfield which proved to be successful and helped propel us up the table. New signing Bruno Guimaraes then made Longstaff’s challenge to get into the team even more difficult.
Though later on, injuries to Willock and Shelvey helped give him another six PL starts last season, where he thoroughly impressed, against Arsenal in particular in the 2-0 win.
This season has been great for Sean Longstaff so far, recent months seeing him appear in all 19 Premier League games, including 15 starts.
This year he’s been seen to play a ‘6’ and ‘8’ role in a 4-3-3 lineup, with his main position being on the right of the midfield three, linking up with the formidable force of Kieran Trippier and Miguel Almiron to great effect.
His ability has been questioned by some fans throughout the season so far, with claims that he’s ‘off the pace’ and ‘takes too many touches’, however, I believe these claims are harsh, as the work he does that goes unnoticed makes him a valuable asset.
His defensive stats are commendable, 17 tackles, winning 77 duels as well as 28 aerial duels. Something these statistics fail to mention is where these duels are won, he has a strong effective press which allows him to win the ball high up the pitch to trigger a quick and devastating counter-attack on a defense stunned by losing possession.
He attains a fantastic ability to read the game too, allowing him to break up the game, shown through his 29 interceptions. He breaks down the opposition attacks by cutting passing lanes, forcing them into alleys where the ball is easier to win.
Essentially, Sean Longstaff does the dirty work, which means he goes unnoticed and is subsequently as easy target for abuse when things don’t go to plan.
His third man runs are unquestionably impressive, however, it’s what he does once he receives the ball in these positions that often brings the over the top criticism. Too many times he fails to hit the target, with a key example being in the opening minutes at home to Leicester in the Quarter-Final of the Carabao Cup, where it looked harder to miss than score.
This shouldn’t overshadow his importance to the team though, the ground he covers alone should exhibit his worth. This alongside his link from defense to attack, he tends to drop deep to receive from the back line to carry forward and create for the front three, this is shown by his average of 12 passes into the final third per 90.
These final third passes have given a stunning statistic, Sean Longstaff has in fact created more ‘big chances’ this season than Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez.
He embodies the spirit and attitude of a true Geordie too, with an outstanding work rate, understanding what it means to play for the club, giving his absolute all in every game he’s played, and with the right attitude being so important to Howe, you can see why is so trusted in the middle of the park.
The simple fact for me is that without someone like Sean Longstaff in this Newcastle United eleven, the system isn’t as effective.
As it demands a player that will run for the full 90, a player who will do the dirty work, a player who can do both, a traditional box to box midfielder who allows others around him to shine, someone as selfless as Longstaff who puts the team first.
Obviously, there are weaknesses in his game that need to be ironed out if he is to stay in the side for years to come, but under Howe, and with age on his side and his prime years yet to be hit, I have no doubt he will become that player we all so desperately want him to be.