Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Player under the microscope: Jamaal Lascelles

Rather infuriatingly, some people have everything. Youth, money, a job they love, looks (I’m told), a pet goat, a fancy and exotic name – you might think all that were enough but no; now Arsenal want to sign them. That’s right, I’m talking about Jamaal Lascelles. But is he any good?

Perhaps the most hyped academy graduate for a decade, it feels like the 20 year old has been on the horizon a long time. Finally given the chance to make the garibaldi shirt his own after injuries to Kelvin Wilson and Danny Collins, Lascelles performance against Yeovil was a rare sparkle during an uncomfortable 3-1 defeat, as he performed well.

The youngster has perhaps been a victim of his club’s circumstances – the highly rated defender has been capped by England at all youth levels and could have expected regular first team action before now. However, Forest seem to be constantly fighting for promotion or against relegation – blooding young players has been risky.

Lascelles has passed the test with flying colours. If anything The Reds have defended better with Lascelles in the side, conceding fewer goals on average (see his stats, above. All graphics on Forest Boffin can be enlarged if clicked). There are tactical issues at work here coinciding with his inclusion, but the young defender has not let us down.

Lascelles understanding of the game is impressive. Against Yeovil, I believe Gary Johnson specifically targeted the rookie as The Glovers changed the way their strikers play for this game, repeatedly attempting to drag him out of position in a clever ploy often involving Joel Grant – Lascelles did well, stubbornly holding his defensive position (see right for an example).

For me, this is the most impressive facet of Lascelles’ game – his positional awareness and reading of the game, his decision making and concentration. This one-on-one duelling when the attackers have the ball, for such a young player, is excellent. He appears to know when to allow his man to turn, and when to go tight, and has the athleticism to track strikers wriggling their way forward.

A good example of this was the frightening moment when Niko Kranjcar broke loose on the edge of Forest’s penalty area (see left). As I watched from The Trent End, I was mesmerised as the Croat tried to hypnotise Lascelles with his quick feet. This rare glimpse of the beautiful game in second division football was particularly worrying from the Forest point of view – but watch the replay and you will see Lascelles doing a great job of making the inevitable shot more difficult – he did not panic, instead standing his ground as if he’d faced this kind of threat many times.

This kind of defending is what I like to see – the diligent tracking of an opponent with the ball, without diving in, without getting his shorts dirty, is a sign of a good player. Added to this savvy defending is Lascelles’ physical attributes, which leave him well placed to become an excellent central defender – height, pace and athleticism. I don’t think he’s the powerhouse others have suggested, but at 20 he’ll only get stronger.

Lascelles ability in the air is still developing. Despite not being as strong as some of his adversaries, he has generally won his battles with target men – at least when defending the long ball. Using his height, and defensive vision to an advantage, he invariably gets his head onto the majority of direct play.

Any problems have arisen when defending crosses; he has fought some interesting duels with mixed results. For the first half of our game at Leicester, he often found himself up against David Nugent, and the experienced Fox was winning the aerial battle; it has been widely regarded that Billy Davies pulled Lascelles off at half time because he was on a booking, but the Forest defender does not appear to be a hot-head – I would not be surprised if an element of this change was to bring on someone more suited to battle Nugent in the air. Greg Halford handled the job better.

Another interesting clash was Lascelles vs. £60,000 per week ‘danger-man’ Nikola Zigic. At 6 foot 7, the Serb would test any defender’s ability in the air, and in my opinion he is the ideal striker for a young player to learn against, because he is, considering his mammoth wage, so utterly, desperately, useless. Initially the Birmingham striker was getting the better of their aerial struggle, often managing to get goal side of Lascelles – luckily it did not matter. As the game progressed this began to change and by the end the defender was coming out on top.

However, not all players have been so ineffective, and there have been several occasions where Lascelles has been beaten by canny, strong players when defending crosses – often other defenders. This is where Forest have been conceding their goals recently, and although it would be an exaggeration to say Lascelles inclusion has been the deciding factor, the amount of headed goals conceded has risen sharply with him in the side (see chart, right).

This information must, however, be considered in a tactical context. Lascelles’ inclusion has coincided almost perfectly with a change of system, as Billy Davies employed a two-man defensive midfield system – making it more difficult for threats to come through the centre of the pitch; this will have made it more likely to concede from crosses, although perhaps not enough to account for the entire difference.

Conversely, this change of tactics has offered more protection to the back four, as it is a more defensive system – therefore Lascelles’ stats above, although impressive, should be treated with some caution. He has not been faced with opponents rampaging at will through the middle of the pitch as his predecessors did, the defence’s job has been easier since Davies switched formation.

This is not to take away anything from Lascelles – he has done just about everything asked. As well as the above points, it must be noted that he’s a diligent man-marker, very rarely losing his assigned striker, and his communication also appears to be above the level you would expect from a 20 year old rookie.

It is no surprise that other clubs are looking at this player enviously, but it would be a shame to see Lascelles go to a Premiership side at the moment. Lascelles is not ready for Premiership football yet – and would certainly not get in an Arsenal side fighting for the title. He would sit in their reserves, playing the odd cup game while missing out on a years’ development. It’s possible we would even pass him on the way up, gaining promotion while he is loaned out to a team like Ipswich or Watford, and then eventually sold to a similar team, finally able to pick up his career, richer financially but not in talent, nor experience. He would become another Connor Wickham – a Chris Gunter. Scott Sinclair; Dale Jennings – a few names off the top of my head, they have all suffered due to their big moves.

This country produces some exceptional talent – too much of it ends up languishing in Premiership reserve sides instead of gaining the competitive experience needed to develop. Lascelles; Darlow – Will Hughes; Tom Ince; Matt Phillips – for the sake of football in the UK we need young players like these playing games.

And Forest fans will be desperate to keep hold of their home-grown talent, but a word of warning; with the uncertainty of Financial Fair Play, the club has some difficult decisions to make. With Forest only allowed to lose £8 million this season, the sale of this player could be the difference between compliance or non-compliance. The consequences of failing this test would likely be, should Forest fail to get promotion, a transfer embargo beginning in January 2015.

A quick-straw poll on fans forums shows just how highly regarded Lascelles is. When asked who they judge should be Forest’s first choice centre-backs, they were of divided opinion (see left), but interestingly over half thought he should be one of the two – when you consider his competition this is a fine testament.

In my opinion Kelvin Wilson is the best defender at the club, and Jack Hobbs is still ahead of Lascelles by a significant distance, but for how long? If the youngster is banging on the door for a first team place now, in a year he’ll be knocking it off its hinges. He appears to have all the attributes to develop into a top class defender - I'm nit-picking when criticising his heading of a ball, for a 20 year old he does this very well, and I see it turning into one of his best assets. We will hear "headed away by Lascelles" a lot over the next few years.

It will be interesting to watch his development this season should he stay at The City Ground. Alongside Karl Darlow, he could become one of the best players in the country and is clearly heading for The Premier League – hopefully they will both get there with Forest.

Thanks for reading, thanks to members of City Ground Faithful, LTLF & Vital Forest forums for their help, opinions are welcome (both in the comments section and here), and COYR!
* all stats are from league games only. Nikola Zigic's wages information taken from national press reports, and is the more conservative of the two figures I found!

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