Jamaal Lascelles put in his best captain's display at the perfect time for Newcastle United
Throughout his entire career, Newcastle United defender Jamaal Lascelles has been on the receiving end of doubts and criticism. As English defenders go, there aren’t many better equipped to succeed than the 23-year-old. Strong, confident and quick off the mark, Lascelles is made for the top level, but that has not always been so apparent.
When he joined the Magpies in 2014 as part of a £7million double deal with his Nottingham Forest teammate Karl Darlow, there weren’t too many Forest fans crying into their morning cereal. He was adjudged as their fourth-choice centre-back by some, while his former manager Stuart Pearce claimed he and Darlow weren’t ready for the Premier League.
Time passed and he began to prove people wrong. It wasn’t until the end of his first full season, 2015/16, that his importance became clear. As Newcastle stared down the barrel of relegation following a 3-1 defeat at Southampton, Lascelles bravely took to a post-match interview to announce some home truths about his teammates. Talent and quality weren’t the issues, it was just the application.
Rafa Benitez was impressed and, despite relegation being confirmed, he subsequently gave Lascelles the captain’s armband for the ensuing Championship season. Inconsistent performances, however, led some to question whether Benitez had made the right call.
Now, the outlook is different. Newcastle’s clash with Swansea on Sunday afternoon taught a lot of people to ignore external circumstances when making predictions. Benitez was absent from the game as he was recovering from a hernia operation. Couple that with Swansea’s upbeat mood after a double swoop for Renato Sanches and Wilfried Bony before the transfer deadline and many presumed that there'd be only one winner. But Lascelles was inspired and made a difference at both ends in an unlikely, but welcome, 1-0 win at the Liberty Stadium.
It was his powerful header from a Matt Ritchie corner that proved to be the winner, but moments earlier a goal-line clearance from one-time Newcastle target Tammy Abraham after he rounded goalkeeper Rob Elliot was just as vital. He was rightly given the man of the match award, and after starting the season on the bench as Benitez accommodated new signing Florian Lejeune, he has given his manager a headache now that the latter has returned from injury.
Their game plan will not work every week but in keeping that organised shape and reducing the number of panicky moments in defence, following Benitez’s meticulously thought out instructions perfectly, Newcastle will stay in any game for long periods.
Going forward, Joselu looks a revelation, winning everything in the air, even when off balance or second best against the defender, Ayoze Perez was quiet but still came up with a few moments of magic while there is more to come from Jacob Murphy, who's willingness to run at the Swansea defence was intoxicating, but he must work on his decision making.
Once again, Mikel Merino was superb in the middle of the pitch, proving that a midfielder on loan from the Bundesliga did dominate the game, but it wasn’t Bayern Munich youngster Sanches. His performance was scrutinised as so much was expected from him; a year ago he was voted Euro 2016’s Young Player of the Year and he has all the attributes to star as a box-to-box midfielder.
Despite his strength, power and ability to play with both feet, it should still be remembered Sanches is a 20-year-old in a new league lacking match fitness and confidence in equal measure.
The assumption he and Swansea would simply overpower Newcastle did not give the team, Benitez and Merino the respect they deserved. Much had been made pre-game about the Spain under-21 star and whether he should keep Jonjo Shelvey out of the team, and he wasn’t afforded time on the pitch against his former club.
Isaac Hayden, the other piece of the midfield puzzle, had an uncharacteristically poor game, struggling to keep hold of the ball throughout. He was shackled from an early booking, too, but he later admitted it wasn’t his best game and will be looking to improve against Stoke City next week.
Swansea boss Paul Clement has something good brewing in South Wales, but the rebuilding after selling both Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente will take some time and because Sanches was not quite at the races, they struggled to find the punch their possession needed to become effective.
Clement showed his class by refusing to call attention to Matt Ritchie’s high foot on Alfie Mawson, for which he received a yellow card despite many claiming he should have got the same treatment as Liverpool’s Sadio Mane. Even Ritchie admitted he was perhaps a little lucky to stay on the pitch.
Newcastle now head into a game at home to Stoke City in confident mood. Rafa Benitez’s absence should have been a big problem, but the depth of his preparation and quality of his coaching staff meant the team played perfectly in his image.
It was Jamaal Lascelles, though, who proved decisive; leading from the front despite his relatively young age at the most important moment yet. Benitez has made some risky calls at Newcastle, but more often than not he is proven right; ironically, as he wasn’t even there, Sunday’s match showed just how right he was to gamble on his captain.