Rafa Benitez says Newcastle United’s Sean Longstaff is “shy” – except when he’s got the ball at his feet.
The 21-year-old is set to make a fifth successive start for the club in this afternoon’s FA Cup tie against Watford.
Technically-gifted Longstaff – who only made his Premier League debut on Boxing Day and spent last season on loan at Blackpool – has taken advantage of a midfield injury crisis which has deprived Benitez of Jonjo Shelvey, Mohamed Diame and Ki Sung-yueng.
“Sean’s doing well,” said Benitez, speaking ahead of the fourth-round tie at St James’s Park.
“He was on loan last season, which can be a good thing for a young player, because it’s a good chance for them and they come back with more experience.
“But it depends on the mentality of the player as to how they play.
“In his case, it was a positive thing. He’s a lad who can be quite shy, but he’s very mature.
“He’s keen to learn, he listens to my staff and tries to do the things that you’re telling him.
“Normally, young players need time because of the pace of the Premier League.
“But, technically, he’s already fine. He’s a worker, he trains well, he’s listening and getting better and better.”
Longstaff was promoted to the first-team squad in pre-season last summer.
Asked if he was surprised with how well Longstaff had done, Benitez said: “He has not really surprised me. I’ve been talking with my staff about him for quite a while and how well he’s doing every week.
“We decided eventually we had to play him, and circumstances allowed us to.
“But, with young players, you have to be careful; sometimes you put them into a difficult game, and it’s worse for them because they cannot manage it, and that could be a backwards step.
“We put him in against Liverpool, and we felt he had nothing to lose.
“He was fine and then afterwards he had to play against Chelsea.
“He’s a quiet type, and he’s not someone who is losing his head.
“It’s always a special thing for a young player to break through at his own club, coming through the system.
“They have the passion, they know what it means to the fans, and of course his family are Newcastle fans.
“It’s quite important to have players like that coming through, and it’s also recognition for the work they are doing at the Academy.”
Benitez, however, is reluctant to talk too much about Longstaff, who signed a new deal at the club earlier this season.
“We’d been monitoring him for a long time, we knew he was doing, and he was getting closer and closer to his debut,” said Benitez.
“We knew he had to play. The difficult thing now is to keep the improvement going.
“We cannot talk too much about him just yet.
“You’ve got to keep the balance, and it’s difficult. If you keep talking about them, they can lose focus.
“It’s a good thing he has signed a contract.
“We’re happy with that. But I’ve had experience, and you cannot talk too much about players because they may lose their focus. If you talk too much, it’s worse for them.”
Longstaff – whose younger brother Matty plays for the club’s Under-23s – has been compared to former Manchester United and England midfielder Michael Carrick, a Geordie who slipped through the net at Newcastle.
“I’ve heard the Michael Carrick comparison, and I can see that,” said Benitez.
“Carrick, later on, became a holding-midfielder, but at this stage Sean has more mobility (than just being a defensive-midfielder) and plenty of stamina. He can cover a lot of ground.
“I can see him maybe in the future he could play that Carrick role, but not now, because he likes to go everywhere.
“Certainly, he has the technique and can use both feet quite well.”