We all know a year is an awfully long time in football, especially being a Newcastle fan. The last twelve months in particular have been a whirlwind for current toon skipper, Jamaal Lascelles.
Rewind to this time last year and Newcastle had just been well beaten down on the south coast by Southampton, a team perceived with little to play for, as Newcastle spiralled down to the Championship. 3-1 flattered the toon that day but an interesting side note was the introduction of Lascelles at half time, with Newcastle 2-0 down, replacing Steven Taylor (remember him?). After an improved second half showing, Lascelles boldly faced the press and stated:
“Personally, as a member of this team, I think we need to play with more heart…we need more desire, we need bigger characters on the pitch…we need players who care.”
An attack aimed at quite a few perhaps (Sissoko, Wijnaldum, the selective fitness of Coloccini perhaps), it was both impressive and refreshing in equal measure from a young player to say what most were thinking, despite not being an automatic starter.
It was this attitude that won him a place in the side for the remainder of the season, playing a key part in Newcastle picking up 12 points from six games and remaining unbeaten. Despite still going down, it led to Jamaal being given the captaincy for the 16/17 season. A bright future was set.
This season has not always been plain sailing for the 6’2” centre half though. Poor displays in shock defeats to Fulham and Huddersfield left Newcastle bottom of the Championship after two games. Rafa dropped Lascelles, opting for fan favourite Chancel Mbemba for the visit of Reading, with a 4-1 victory getting our season up and running. Lascelles was later eased back into the side and has been a virtual ever present since, whilst retaining the armband. Clever management by Benitez took the heat off Lascelles but vulnerabilities have become apparent in his game as the season has unfolded.
With Newcastle linked with new centre halves almost daily for next season, it leaves Rafa with a situation on his hands come July. Ciaran Clark has had an outstanding season after arriving to little fanfare in the summer (myself included.) Out of the two, he is better on the ball; more composed and offers a nice balance being left footed.
Lascelles can be error prone, slow on the turn and is guilty of overplaying. Watching opposing teams against Newcastle, a pattern emerges that teams are increasingly happy to let him have the ball, then close him down quickly to draw an error. Fans have begun to ask if it is actually Lascelles who is a potential weak link in our defence, which although still one of the best in the division, has conceded far too many sloppy goals at home in particular.
It is also worth considering that Lascelles is just 23. It is generally accepted centre halves peak between 28-32, where they are at a good level physically but have a wealth of experience and positional sense. It is this expertise and positioning that Lascelles perhaps needs; he has still played under 100 career games and has some great raw abilities. Physically powerful, domineering in the air and not afraid to shirk a tackle, when on form, he can a real asset.
It is easy to forget he was courted by Arsenal before coming to Newcastle and in line with modern media, is only ever a few good games away from being linked with a £20m move to Liverpool or Chelsea.
Lascelles’ greatest strength is his character, which, as alluded to, is something not enough Newcastle players have possessed in recent times. Of course, the real acid test will be what happens this summer and if expected we sign a new centre half, such as Harry Maguire. Playing a full season in the Premiership would also be a test to see what level he is really at.
The greater scrutiny comes from him also being captain. If Newcastle back Benitez with transfer funds, Lascelles will have work to do to retain his place both as skipper and in the side. There are clear areas of improvement for Lascelles’ game but he has the perfect manager and platform to improve. Whatever happens, if he captains us back to the Premier League, we can be grateful he was willing to stand up when so many other players weren’t.