August 2014. Cast your mind back to Louis van Gaal’s Premier League first game as manager, against Swansea City at Old Trafford. The take away from the match was United going down to the Swans, but it also marked Jesse Lingard’s competitive début. Like Van Gaal, Lingard suffered a match to forget, though for completely different reasons, with the youth team graduate heading off after 24 minutes because of a knee injury. It’s a metaphor for Lingard’s career.
The set-back kept Lingard out for almost four months and by the time he recovered the only route regular first team football was a loan move to Derby County. Lingard returned to Premier League action in October 2015 playing in United’s 3-0 win over Everton. In fact after making his first team debut that August Lingard didn’t manage to complete a full 90 minutes for the first team for another 15-months, netting his first goal for United in the Reds’ victory over West Bromwich Albion.
Then again, perhaps that’s too simplistic a view because Lingard’s story is peppered with episodes of individual brilliance. There was his spectacular four-goal début for Birmingham City, his blockbuster winner in the FA Cup final, and of course the mazy dribble and strike against Leicester City in the Community Shield. These are not the efforts of a water carrier, they’re game changing moments executed by a player with more than a modicum of talent.
So is Lingard just a squad player capable of magical moments or is there as yet untapped potential waiting to be developed? The answer leans towards the former. Lingard is already 23, no spring chicken, and for every sensational goal there are a string of anonymous performances. Nonetheless, Lingard’s qualities were valued by Louis van Gaal and are rated by José Mourinho too, sometimes over seemingly more illustrious talents.
Movement, movement, movement
An oft-cited quality is Lingard’s ability off the ball, but this part of his game tends to be a double-edged sword. At the risk of generalizing, on a good day his movement, positional discipline and pressing is lauded as intelligent, but if the result goes against United he’s described as being better without possession than with it.
When the team is playing well Lingard’s movement and appreciation of space can add nuance to the side’s attack. In a recent example Lingard set-up Paul Pogba’s goal against Fenerbaçhe at Old Trafford. He initially pressed Simon Kjær, and immediately looked for space once possession was almost regained, the United youth product then controlled a difficult pass before laying off the ball for Pogba to finish.
On the flip side when Mourinho’s side is playing poorly Lingard’s deficiencies come to light. Against Manchester City and Chelsea he was a source of frustration as United failed to create chances against two rivals.
In effect, Lingard is primarily a catalyst and rarely a game changer, so when things are going well he can make United play more effectively, but when the chips are down his style of play blunts the attack.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]When the team is playing well Lingard’s movement can add nuance to the side’s attack. When it is playing poorly Lingard’s deficiencies come to light.[/blockquote]
But if the 23-year-old is so hit and miss why persist with him? From a playing sense Van Gaal and Mourinho appreciate the work Lingard does off the ball – pressing, tracking back, closing spaces and stretching play. It’s unglamourous, but there is a reason that Lingard keeps getting picked – and it is down to the work he puts in off the ball.
The curse of versatility
Since breaking through into the first team Lingard has operated in a number of positions ranging from wing-back, left and right sided attacker, to number 10. If asked he’d probably be ready, willing and have the understanding to play in many other roles too, but will his multi-functional attributes only serve to transform Lingard into a modern day John O’Shea. Van Gaal expressed his fondness for players who could play in many positions over the pitch and exploited Lingard’s tactical flexibility, while Mourinho has opted to trust the player’s discipline.
Lingard can be shoe-horned into any role, but yet is not accomplished enough to secure a position to call his own. He is within touching distance of being a first choice starter, but hasn’t locked down a role. Granted under Mourinho he has effectively operated as a wide forward, but that’s more because of his multi-functional capabilities and not because he possesses sharp specialist skills like Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford.
Guardian to a new generation?
Leadership is an intangible quality that’s hard to measure, but paradoxically easily recognizable. Describing Lingard as a leader may be an overstatement, but he demonstrated a protective side when Rashford got embroiled in a spot of bother on international duty against Slovenia. It was Lingard who rushed to his team-mate’s aid.
But it’s not just the heat of battle the Warrington-born Red makes his presence felt. Lingard indulges in a touch of the dab with Pogba, stitches up team-mates on social media, stars in cringeworthy corporate fluff knowing how silly he looks, and offered an insider’s view of the coach journey to West Ham United. One gets the impression that he truly loves being a United player and is ready to let the world know about it.
Perhaps most important of all, is that Lingard seems genuinely appreciative of the role he has. He’s had to fight through injury, go out on loan and ultimately compete against more illustrious names to make it at Old Trafford. He has worked harder than most to make it, so there should be no surprise that he takes the responsibility seriously.
Yet, many of his peers have moved on. Paddy McNair, Donald Love, Tyler Blackett, Will Keane, and James Weir all played for United from Lingard’s cohort, but couldn’t quite make the grade. Lingard was retained. Taking into account the time it has taken him to develop it’s quite a story that he has toughed it out at Old Trafford.
Lingard may be a stronger character than many expect. That steel manifests itself on the pitch protecting teammates, mocking stone throwing mobs and winding up fellow players. He’s not exactly the shy and has shown a level of resilience that has surpassed many of the more talented players arriving through the Old Trafford revolving door.
Make or Break?
There are many issues that need to be rectified at Old Trafford, such as Henrikh Mykhitaryan’s role, United’s misfiring attack, and the team’s inconsistency, but for Lingard this season could be a defining. Can the player elevate himself to another, a scenario that seems less likely with every given week; or will he remain a useful squad player?
If anything it seems unfair that a player who has really only completed one full season as a fully fledged United player must prove himself all over again. That’s football. Time is not on Lingard’s side, thanks to recurring injury and United’s fall from grace. But if his career is anything to go by Lingard’s not going to give up without a fight.
Despite United’s struggles, it’s hard to argue that Lingard should be included in Mourinho’s best starting XI. It’s up to him to prove the doubters wrong – and if there’s one thing Lingard is adept at it is dealing with, it’s adversity.