Perhaps last week, he went too far, but the unbounded determination that Newcastle United captain Jamaal Lascelles shows on a daily basis is has done both him and the club the world of good since he signed. Rumours of a bust-up with Rafael Benitez before the defeat against Chelsea have sinice been elaborated on; not only may that have contributed to his absence last week, but it could have even spread to a physical confrontation with teammate Matt Ritchie.
Unless either player, or an eye witness, confirms what exactly happened, nobody will know, but it is not the first time Lascelles has taken another player to task, neither is it the only time he and Ritchie have clashed. The pair did so last year, while Lascelles also told Mohamed Diame, then playing rather poorly in a Newcastle shirt, a few home truths before an upturn in form from the Senegalese. In fact, the turning point in the 24-year-old’s career, and probably the reason he was given the captaincy post-relegation in 2016, was an interview he gave after Newcastle lost at Southampton, where he again did not shirk the chance to tell some senior figures on the playing staff exactly what he thought of them.
West Ham, Everton and Chelsea were all linked with the defender in the summer, with the former even making a bid, but keeping him was vital, not only because he is probably the best player at the club, but because he is certainly the most important. Of the 44 points the Magpies amassed last season on the way to finishing tenth, he was invalves in 43 of them; his absence also coincided with an alarming slide down the table in the first half of the campaign. It is his grit, desire and aggression that drives the whole club forward; Ritchie is the same, as proven by his response to being substituted against Tottenham on the opening day. The fact they may disagree so passionately only serves to show how much they care.
Given that heart and effort were lacking so greatly until Benitez, these kinds of incidents should be celebrated. When he was asked about his team selection ahead of the Carabao Cup tie at Nottingham Forest on Wednesday, he said he would pick “a team that cares”. Fortunately, that now doesn’t give much away because the entire squad, carefully put together by the manager, has the same selfless aims. Previous squads, while more talented on paper, were full of egos that didn’t have the collective interests of the team at heart. Benitez has spent his entire reign trying to change the culture right throughout the club, but the transfer policy was feeding the toxic atmosphere. As a way of getting “better“ players to sign, the club painted themselves as the ideal stepping stone to a bigger move, meaning when the going got tough, many players did not rise to the occasion. As Lascelles and Ritchie have shown, that simply is not the case anymore.
Directly after Lascelles‘ confrontation with Diame, the midfielder’s performances improved markedly. At the time it was said that the captain accused him of laziness, but in the second half of the campaign, alongside Jonjo Shelvey, he made the world of difference. Other factors undoubtedly played a part in that, including Benitez finding his best position, which he consistently struggled to do up until then, but being called out on his perceived poor attitude will have put some fire in his belly.
Disagreeing with tactics is one thing, but challenging the manager to the point he drops you is never a good thing. Reports, and it must be stressed that’s all these are at this stage, suggest Lascelles has since apologised to both Benitez and Ritchie. He will learn from it, and it remains to be seen whether he is fit enough, because the official line from the club was that he sat out the weekend with an ankle problem, to face Manchester City on Saturday. If he does play, he will need to get on board with whatever approach Benitez chooses to go with, but at this point that is likely to happen.
During his press conference ahead of the trip to Forest, Benitez also admitted that the current way of working under Mike Ashley has impacted his approach to cup competitions. It may have been a throwaway comment, but it is incredibly sad and alarming, because winning a trophy, and ending the near 50-year wait for glory, was one of the reasons he came to Newcastle in the first pace.
Deep in his heart, even Benitez will know that cup runs are unlikely this season and he will most likely give youth a chance at the City Ground. Quality does not run throughout his squad, but heart and passion do; both Jamaal Lascelles and Matt Ritchie embody that more than most, and they should only be encouraged to show it.
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