Connect in the back of the net

Newcastle United captain Jamaal Lascelles signed a new six-year contract with the club, keeping him at St James’ Park until 2023.

The defender has been one of United’s star performers this season and was rewarded with the new deal on the basis of a number of impressive performances, where he has contributed at both ends of the field this season.

Lascelles arrived at Newcastle from Nottingham Forest in August 2014, in a double-deal alongside goalkeeper Karl Darlow. The pair were then loaned back to Forest for the season and subsequently returned to St James’ Park for the 2015/16 campaign.

Upon his return, Lascelles found himself on the fringes of the first team and rarely featured under then-manager Steve McClaren, not making his first start for the club until January 2016.

 

Trusted by Benitez

When McClaren was replaced as manager by Rafael Benitez, Lascelles featured more regularly after Newcastle’s defensive injury crisis; captain at the time Fabricio Coloccini and summer signing Chancel Mbemba were both sidelined for some time, leaving the young Lascelles to step up.

Lascelles first entered the spotlight following a 3-1 defeat away to Southampton in April 2016, however it was about what occurred off the pitch, rather than on it, which then became a turning point for the defender.

The Southampton defeat was a defensive calamity, with the Magpies seeming bereft of composure, quality and communication at the back, letting their heads drop immediately after falling behind after just four minutes. The result left the Toon 19th in the table with just six games to go and Lascelles felt that something needed to be said.

Following the match, the Englishman made a public outburst on his team-mates, in which he stated that the players needed to take more responsibility, while also accusing them of a lack of heart and desire and questioning their commitment.

The away changing room that day also got heated, with Lascelles again speaking up. Rafa liked what he saw from Lascelles, despite the result. He admired the courage of the centre-back – a fringe player at the time – to openly express his feelings and question the club’s high earners.

Lascelles’ willingness to speak up demonstrated his leadership qualities as well as passion and became a focal point in his career.

Following the loss on the South coast, Lascelles started and scored in the Magpies’ next game, a 3-0 win at home against Swansea City; backing up his talking. The Toon then went unbeaten for the remaining six games of the 2015/16 season, however this did not prevent them from the disaster of relegation to the second tier.

 

Becoming the club’s skipper

Upon the 2016/17 season in the Championship, Rafa Benitez named Lascelles as club captain, having appreciated what he saw of the centre-half in the previous season.

This was a big responsibility of Lascelles, who was at the raw age 22 at the time and was being asked to lead a club of the size and stature of Newcastle United back to the Premier League; Lascelles was not fazed however, and embraced the opportunity.

The Championship was about character off the pitch as well as quality on it, and the decision to appoint Lascelles as captain proved a wise one from Benitez, with the centre-back forming a strong spine for United, alongside midfielder Jonjo Shelvey and forward Dwight Gayle, while Matt Ritchie and Ciaran Clark also inputted vastly.

Lascelles embraced the captaincy, however he was still young and constantly learning. At times during the season, some of his performances were below par, while his mobility as a defender were also questioned.

However, towards the end of the season it was revealed that the centre-half was playing despite an injury to his hernia for the best part of four months.

It was this grit and battling spirit that Rafa saw in Lascelles in the first place; the fact that the defender continued for such a prolonged period when he was not fully fit in order to gain promotion for his club earned him extra plaudits, and this work rate epitomised exactly what Rafa had instilled into his Newcastle United team.

Overall, it was a successful season for Lascelles; despite hiccups along the way. The Englishman lead Newcastle to the Championship title on a dramatic final day and he was also named in the PFA Championship team of the season, while he also contributed with three goals.

 

Pivotal for Newcastle this season

On returning to the Premier League, Rafa Benitez added another option at centre-half with the acquisition of Florian Lejeune, intensifying the competition for places.

Initially it seemed like bad news for Lascelles, having being left on the bench for the Magpies’ opening match against Spurs, with Lejeune starting. However, the Frenchman was plagued with injury early on, giving Lascelles another opportunity which he grasped with both hands.

After back-to-back defeats in their first two matches, Newcastle – and Lascelles – responded, with United gaining ten points from their next five matches; winning three and drawing one, while also losing one.

Lascelles was pivotal for the Toon, scoring winning goals in consecutive matches, against Swansea City and Stoke City respectively. The defender was also concrete at the back, and was an essential element to the sound and disciplined defensive unit that Rafa created, with Lascelles seemingly more suited to the Premier League than the Championship.

 

Rise in stock

Lascelles has now seen his stock raise, with him being the youngest captain in the Premier League; it is evident to all that he is a natural leader, something that Newcastle have lacked desperately in the years prior to relegation.

As a result of his performances and character, there has been talk of a possible England call-up for Lascelles, with England manager Gareth Southgate present at Newcastle’s match away at Brighton. However Lascelles knows himself that hard work is the only avenue to success, both at club and international level.

The defender now has the responsibility of motivating a new team masterminded by Rafa Benitez. Everything is set at the football club and, from what we have seen so far, there is a bright future ahead for Jamaal Lascelles.

 

Written by Dawud Arshad

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