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.
Few would have guessed that Jesse Lingard would be one of Manchester United’s most explosive attackers this season. Not after Memphis Depay’s £25 million acquisition in the summer, nor Juan Mata’s rejuvenation. Adnan Januzaj’s determination to find a place in Louis van Gaal’s team early in the campaign also pointed towards Lingard’s exclusion.
Yet, with Memphis blowing hot and cold, Mata being pushed into uncomfortable positions on the pitch, and Januzaj shipped out to Borussia Dortmund on loan, Warrington-born Lingard has stepped up and enjoyed a level of performance that any of his peers in the United dressing room could be proud of.
Lingard has played around 200 minutes of football for the United first team and was yet called up to the England squad for the national team’s friendly against France this week. Critics questioned Roy Hodgson for selecting such an inexperienced player, citing more storied options who might also have merited an opportunity. Yet, such has been the Englishman’s impact in the past month that Lingard’s call-up was more than deserved.
United’s supporters have been eagerly awaiting Lingard’s chance in the first team, with the youngster being perennially around the squad since the twilight of the Sir Alex Ferguson era. Under David Moyes, Lingard was farmed out on loan despite being the club’s pre-season top scorer. It proved to be blessing in disguise considering the detrimental impact Moyes’ reign had on many first-team players.
There were early signs of progress after Van Gaal took over in summer 2014, with Lingard scoring the winner against Liverpool in the pre-season International Champions Cup. It might have been the winger’s big break, but for a cruel injury in last season’s opener against Swansea City, which ruled Lingard out of contention for much of the campaign. Nevertheless, the Englishman has shown great determination to fight his way back into his manager’s plans and, apart from Anthony Martial, is now United’s principal attacking threat.
Even Ferguson saw the youngster’s seismic potential during his time in charge, predicting big things for the then 19-year-old in 2011. “He will become a player when he’s 22 or so. As an attacking midfielder he has got a really good talent. I think he will be a player we have high hopes for, definitely,” forecasted the former United manager.
Under Van Gaal United has looked impotent in attack, with a ponderous form of possession-based football a key tenet of the Dutchman’s reign. The team has struggled to create clear-cut chances and often toiled to break down the opposition with a one-dimensional attacking game-plan. In this context Lingard’s dynamism and sense of fearlessness on either wing is welcome. In fact the 22-year-old has surprised fans with his direct running and verve, which has proven a problem for many of the defenders that he’s had to face this season.
More importantly Lingard has already played a part in three vital goals for United. He was heavily involved in the build-up to Martial’s header against CSKA Moscow in the Russian capital, and a sublime first-touch cross was directed at Wayne Rooney for the headed winner in the return leg. Recently, Lingard netted his first goal for United after placing a beautifully weighted finish past Boaz Myhill to open the scoring against a dogged West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford. Even in the goalless stalemates against Manchester City and Middlesbrough Lingard was the player closest to breaking the deadlock – hitting the bar against both opponents.
Indeed, the former academy product has added a new dimension to United’s play. It has quickly enamoured the player to supporters who enjoy Lingard’s enthusiasm on and off the ball – one bright spark in an otherwise turgid attack.
Less celebrated, perhaps, but Lingard’s disciplined play is the key difference between Memphis and the player who joined United aged just seven. The Dutchman’s inability to play for the team, along with his poor-decision making, has left Memphis frozen out by Van Gaal. In contrast, Lingard’s selfless play, coupled with the direct threat that he offers, has made the Englishman a firm favorite of the manager already.
Lingard’s influence on United’s play has been so decisive that Van Gaal was determined to protect one of his most prized assets at from potential injury by stating that it was much “too early” for the winger to be play for England. The former Barcelona manager, who is relatively conservative in complimenting players, was full of praise for the 22-year-old in an interview with Sky Sports last week.
“I am pleased but it is very fast,” Van Gaal added the Dutchman. “It is the circumstances, but still I have congratulated him with his promotion so it is always fine to see how players are developing and because of that he is rewarded.
“When a player shows what he can do on a high level then he can do it also on the national team and now he has an experience to be in the selection of the national squad of England which is a different environment.”
Lavish praise from two of the most successful managers in the history of football; hearts captured on the Stratford End; and a huge responsibility effectively handled. It seems that the sky is the limit for the fleet-footed boy from Warrington. Lingard’s appearance on the bench at Wembley is unlikely be a one-off.
There was nothing on when Jesse Lingard picked up the ball 30 yards from goal. No red shirts in sight, just plenty of blue, closing in. What happened next was a mixture of the fearlessness of youth combined with individual skill. A look up, a shimmy, a drag back, and then Lingard shifted his weight to wrap his right foot around the ball, bending it into the far corner.
In many ways, it was fitting that Lingard should wrap up United’s pre-season
marketing exercise tour. Whilst United’s jaunt around Australia and Asia had undoubtedly earned some extra money to line the Glazers’ pockets, it also served as an exciting window into the future. Sir Alex Ferguson may have retired, but his final gift to United was on display.
There are two things at the heart of Manchester United, woven deep into the fabric of the club: the pursuit of exciting football, and a preference for developing young players. For all the talk of big summer signings that may or, more likely, may not happen; for all the talk of Thiago, Cesc Fabregas and Mouranne Fellaini, the truth is, for most fans, the greatest thrill is seeing one of ‘our own’ flourish.
There is a special place in the club annals for the Busby Babes, George Best, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. And it’s why there will be extra pleasure at seeing Danny Welbeck flourish into a top class player over the coming years – a favourite moment last season coming when Welbeck scored in the Bernabéu.
United may not have produced another batch of youngsters to match the legendary Babes or Fergie’s Fledglings, but there has been a steady number of youngsters making the grade in recent years. The aforementioned Welbeck and Tom Cleverley played an important role in last season’s title success. Darren Fletcher, John O’Shea and Wes Brown have all won Champions League winners medals. In Brown’s case, two of them.
And as football has become a truly global game, academy rules have changed, and it has become easier to snap up the best young talent from around the world, the definition of a ‘home grown youngster’ has widened.
Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, the Da Silva twins and David De Gea may not have grown up in United’s youth academy, but they are ‘our’ youngsters. These are players that the club has invested in; players that fans watch as they improve and fulfill their potential. After all, watching youngsters grow into top class performers is far more exciting that spending big money on established stars.
It remains to be seen how successfully David Moyes maintains the tradition of attacking football at United; the side has only periodically excited with great football since Cristiano Ronaldo left. But there are enough encouraging signs that Moyes is committed to continuing developing youth.
The first team squad that visited Thailand, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong was shorn of several regulars, but still contained Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra, Robin van Persie and Giggs. Yet, it was three young players who consistently impressed.
The performances of Jesse Lingard, Adnan Januzaj and Wifried Zaha this summer should offer reason to be optimistic for the future. Not just because they are young, nor even because Lingard is a product of United’s academy, but because they are genuinely exciting. Because they produce moments of individual skill. Because they are players who entertain.
Last season was thrilling in many ways. The early season comebacks, the comprehensive title victory after disappointment the previous year, and the joyous finale. But in truth United’s football wasn’t that exciting.
In recent years United have become a functional machine, a team accustomed to gaining results by being greater than the sum of its parts thanks to Ferguson’s brilliance.
It has become a machine embodied by two players on the flanks – traditionally an area of strength – who have just a single trick each, which is more often than not unsuccessful. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are not bad players, but they are not players who set the pulses racing. They do not get fans off their seats. And with one goal between them last season, not ones to worry opposition defenders either.
Yet Lingard, Januzaj and Zaha promise something fresh and exciting. They are players who can play across the forward line; who have excellent technique. Players who can take on a defender with skill and who make football fun to watch. And what is football if it’s not entertainment?
As the post-season drew in and the reality of a post-Ferguson United dawns, fans thoughts turned to the transfer market. Could the new manager prise the cheque-book off Malcolm Glazer’s hands and invest in one or two big signings?
Certainly, a central midfielder is a must. It has been for years. But many fans also want to see another forward – perhaps not a striker, but an upgrade on the resources available in wide or deeper attacking areas. An advance on the maddening inconsistency of Nani and on the average served up by Young and Valencia. On Rooney’s ‘hands on hips look of frustration despite being unfit’ demeanour.
But watching United this pre-season, and witnessing the growth of three young players, may have prompted a re-think. Why should the club spend big on a new attacking player when there may be a solution already present?
This trio is not alone. Larnell Cole and Nick Powell are big talents in midfield. Will Keane is a gifted forward who will overcome a serious knee injury. His twin brother Michael, who also played on tour, impressed on loan at Leicester City last season. And Angelo Henriquez may not have appeared for the first team yet, but he has already been capped by – and scored for – his country at full international level.
Promote youth and Young, Nani and Valencia will be kept on their toes. Meanwhile, Januzaj can cover for Shinji Kagawa in the attacking midfield role. Suddenly, Moyes’ attack looks less stodgy and far more exciting. More like a ‘proper’ United side.
These players may not make it as first team regulars. They may or may not prove to be good enough. Premier League football may be a step too far. But maybe, just maybe, some will make it. That they are gifted technically, brave and exciting in possession, ensures United fans want them go all the way.
There’s every chance that a rejuvenated Chelsea and Manchester City will leave Moyes’ outfit in the slipstream this season, with the club adjusting to the post-Ferguson era. But it doesn’t mean that the club’s identity will be lost. Instead, there’s an opportunity to build on it and to build a new, great United side.
And perhaps, with this current batch of youngsters, Ferguson has left Moyes with everything he needs to do just that.