Lascelles' leadership, confidence have Newcastle captain in England frame
There's always drama of some description at Newcastle. This summer, among such other trivialities as the manager threatening to resign on the eve of the season, there was a dispute between the club hierarchy and players over bonuses. But Jamaal Lascelles picked up the phone, called chairman and owner Mike Ashley, and shortly afterward the dispute was solved. It's worth remembering at this point that Lascelles is 23.
Still, despite his age, it perhaps shouldn't be a huge surprise. Lascelles, who was appointed as Newcastle captain last year at age 22, has shown those ever-ephemeral qualities of leadership from an even younger age. Noel Blake is a former England youth coach who picked Lascelles for various England age group teams, and he tells ESPN FC about a game in 2011 against a Spain Under-19 side featuring a young Alvaro Morata.
"There was a throw into the box," Blake said. "Big Jamaal went up for it, the keeper caught it and cleared; then one of their players went down, claiming that Jamaal had elbowed him. They wanted the game stopped, but we just played on.
"He was trying to con us, using gamesmanship, but Jamaal saw what was going on. That was part of his leadership qualities: He took the bull by the horns and said 'No, we're playing on.' It's just little things like that: He can stand up for himself."
That's one of the main qualities that has led him to where he is now. Lascelles was named Newcastle captain essentially because he cleared what probably should be a pretty low bar: He cared. Toward the end of the 2015-16 season, when Newcastle were relegated from the Premier League, Lascelles -- who at that point was nothing like a regular -- spoke up in a team meeting at what he perceived was going wrong in the dressing room.
"People going through the motions," he explained in a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph. "It angered me ... I know I'm not the most talented player and there were players here who had so much more to offer the team and they didn't do it ... I said some things in there and a couple of people didn't like it, they really didn't like it. In the pecking order of the dressing room, I shouldn't have said what I said. I shouldn't even have opened my mouth, but I did because it needed to be said at the time."
Like the captaincy, and the attendant responsibility, Lascelles has done plenty of things before conventional wisdom suggests a player should.
"I brought him into the group a year young," said Blake, about calling Lascelles up to the England Under-19 side. "I looked at the previous year group, and it wasn't particularly strong. So we looked at the next group, which included Harry Kane and Ross Barkley."
Physically, he developed early too. Blake, who these days runs a football consultancy, said: "What he is now, in terms of his physicality, he had then. He was strong, quick, could win the ball in the air. He had all the makings of an international, all the ingredients."
One thing that does seem to have improved in the years since has been his confidence. In those early England days, partly because he played for Nottingham Forest while his contemporaries hailed from rather more illustrious sides, Lascelles doubted whether he belonged.
"In his mind, because he was playing with players from Chelsea, he had an idea that he was lesser," Blake said. "And I used to say to him: 'No, if you get picked for your country, you're here because you're good enough.' His confidence has clearly grown in the intervening years."
In this still nascent season, Lascelles has arguably become one of the most important players in the Premier League. A chaotic summer transfer window left Newcastle without a number of Benitez's primary targets and thus theoretically unprepared for life back in the top flight, meaning their existing players had to, for want of a better phrase, step up. Lascelles has done that with some gusto, scoring two but more importantly keeping together a defence that has been decimated by injury. Despite all that, they go into this weekend's game against Liverpool having conceded only twice in their past four matches, three of which they've won.
"He was one of those that took the bull by the horns in training," said Blake. "When he trained, he trained with a purpose. He looked at training as just like a game. Harry Kane was very similar. They would train like they were saying, 'I'm not here to be in the squad, I'm here to be in the team.' Jamaal didn't always start, but he was always ready to play."
It's that latter point that is particularly pertinent. Lascelles was bought, along with goalkeeper Karl Darlow, from Forest in 2014 and immediately loaned back; but in a chaotic season at the City Ground, he wasn't an automatic first choice. Then when he did arrive in Newcastle, he spent the season on the fringe of the team; and even after establishing himself last term, he wasn't actually in the starting XI for Newcastle's first game of this season against Tottenham, with Benitez preferring new signing Florian Lejeune. But after the Frenchman was injured seven minutes into the game, Lascelles was on. And he has played every Premier League minute since. Throughout all that time, he has been ready to play.
Benitez is not, to say the least, a man prone to hyperbole about individuals. With talk building that Lascelles could win a call to the senior England squad, the Newcastle manager was asked about his captain's prospects. As you might expect, Benitez rolled out the usual lines about him playing well but needing to improve, but he also offered a telling snippet.
"I had another conversation with him this week when we talked about commitment, work rate, concentration, all these things," Benitez said. "I think he is happy with this approach. He is doing it anyway."
Amid all the drama he has to deal with at St James's Park, you get the impression there's one player Benitez doesn't have to worry about.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.