This is why Jamaal Lascelles belongs in the Premier League '“ with Newcastle
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Moments earlier Newcastle United had been defeated 3-1 at Southampton, a result which left the club 19th in the league facing a relegation which they ultimately could not avoid, and the centre-back fronted up.
He demanded his team-mates – Georginio Wijnaldum, Moussa Sissoko et al – to “play with more heart”. He added: “We need more desire, bigger characters on the pitch.”
By the summer of 2016, still 22, he was handed the captain’s armband by Rafa Benitez, tasked with succeeding Fabricio Coloccini and becoming the on-field general, leading the Magpies back into the Premier League at the first time of asking.
“I would never have thought when I came that one day I would be captain of this great football club,” Lascelles, signed from Nottingham Forest in 2014, said. “For me, it has happened quick.”
His rise at St James’s Park has been rapid. So much so that when the England squad was announced for a double-header against Holland and Italy there was surprise over his omission.
For England, it is changed days in terms of defensive options. Managers once had the choice of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Ledley King, Jamie Carragher and more. There is a general paucity of top class centre-backs eligible to play for the Three Lions. Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling have been left out due to inconsistency meaning Gareth Southgate’s options are derived from Burnley, Leicester City Swansea City, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, if you include Eric Dier.
However, there is a strong belief that by leaving out Lascelles, Southgate has denied himself one of the best current England centre-backs and a player who has the potential to become a bedrock of the national side for years to come.
Many Newcastle fans, as well as Benitez, will be happy to see him stay put, rest, recover and ready himself as the league campaign turns towards its home straight.
“I’m disappointed for them, but at the same time happy for us,” Benitez said regarding Lascelles and Shelvey’s omissions. “It means we can keep them with us and we can carry on working on the things that we need for the rest of the season.”
Now 24, Lascelles continues to be a crucial pillar in the spine of the Newcastle squad. As well as that he is a totem for the club as a whole. While not a Geordie, he is a player the fans can relate to. Humble, grounded, still getting a fiver from his mum for every goal he scores, but confident. His passport may say Derby, but there is the sense that inside he feels Newcastle.
At some clubs the captain’s armband weighs heavier than others. Newcastle is one of those. While admitting to mistakes in the role, he has taken the position in his stride taking guidance from Benitez. Fans see a player, like the manager, who will stand up for the club.
Benitez has been effusive in his praise of the player’s willingness to take on information and desire to improve. The duo have struck up a strong relationship, Lascelles the conduit between manager and team, the second youngest in the league. He is a strong communicator, an old school captain who doesn’t feel the need to mix his words.
But, just as importantly, he is adept at the other side, leading by example. He’ll head, block and clear, he’ll leave himself on the pitch. His importance for the team cannot be underestimated. With Lascelles in the team Newcastle have picked up 1.29 points per game. When he has been missing that figure has dropped to 0.16.
It becomes more pronounced when looking at the goals conceded. Newcastle have conceded an average of one goal per game when Lascelles has played. A figure which rises to three goals per game without the defender.
No team has ceded possession more than Newcastle – their average of 43.2% the lowest in the league. That puts a great deal of importance of organisation, led by Lascelles. He’s not a defender prone to diving into challenges, committing only 11 fouls this season. He puts more thought into his game, as expected of a player who is highly self-analytical. He relishes the physical aspect and is strong in the air.
Just because he is no nonsense, clearing the ball when necessary, there is a logic to all he does, he measures up each and every situation. His ability with the ball at his feet is an undervalued attribute.
It’s natural that he has been linked with moves elsewhere, including to Chelsea, but he is under contract until summer 2023 giving fans a bit of comfort that he will be leading the team for years to come.
Benitez said: “He signed a contract extension this year, so we’re calm. We’re happy with that, and hopefully he can continue learning and growing and improving. He’s a player with all the potential to do well, and I think it’s too soon (for him to move). He’s an important player for us and I’d be happy if he stayed with us for years.”
In the short-term, for the player, it will be about keeping Newcastle in the league and trying to persuade Southgate of his values to the national team. He is the type of character and defender who has it in him to make that next step in his career. Just as he did moving to Newcastle then being tasked with becoming the team’s leader.
If England get to the latter stages of the World Cup they will need players who will be able to defend without seeing much of the ball. But more than anything they will need players with the correct mindset, to be able to handle the pressure, the heat.
Despite having played less than 100 games for the club, in his 43 Premier League appearances he has proved he belongs at such a level.