Jesse Lingard is an enigma. He is neither neatly pigeon-holed as a creative fulcrum, nor a traditional winger. The Warrington-born midfielder is neither quick nor slow, shows inconsistent flashes of technical brilliance, and his only truly reliable quality is to put in the proverbial shirt. Throughout his Manchester United career, whether in the academy or with the seniors, Lingard has never been the outstanding player on the pitch. He is one of many cogs in a whirring machine.
Lingard’s story starts in United’s academy. Surrounded by Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba and Will Keane, Lingard was not often regarded as a future first team player, or at least never enticed as much excitement as some of his peers.
He was an integral part of the youth team though and, in what has become a theme in his senior career, scored the opening goals in the semi-final and final of the FA Youth Cup in 2011, catapulting the team to silverware.
"Throughout his career, in the academy or with the seniors, Lingard has never been the outstanding player on the pitch."
After the high of winning the FA Youth Cup and being handed a professional contract, Lingard’s career entered an uncertain period. “I believe in myself but I have to start believing in myself more,” he once admitted. Yet, while Pogba and Morrison split from Manchester, Lingard remained, albeit always in the shadow of the first team.
The youngster put in some impressive performances in David Moyes’ 2013 pre-season tour of Asia to offer a glimmer of hope for the season to come, but it was Adnan Januzaj, Sir Alex Ferguson’s last academy call-up, who was the break-out star that season.
Having made five appearances at Leicester City on loan the previous season, Lingard hoped for a similar breakthrough.
“Usually they send you out on loan,” he remarked. “Then you come back and then you go out on loan again. Hopefully I can skip the loan stage this time and break straight through.”
Moyes had other ideas and did not trust in Lingard’s ability. The Englishman was sent to Birmingham City on loan, where he scored a thirteen minute hat-trick on his Championship début.
After Moyes’ dismissal and another loan spell at Brighton & Hove Albion, Lingard finally made his competitive United début against Swansea City at the age of 21 in the first league match of Louis van Gaal’s tenure. In what seemed like a summary of the player’s struggle for first team football at his boyhood club, Lingard was injured in the 24th minute and replaced by the talented but less reliable Januzaj – in many ways his antithesis.
Lingard failed to make it back into the first team that season and spent the second half on loan at Derby County where he neither particularly shone nor disappointed.
It was not until the 2015/16 season that Lingard became a United regular, at the age of 23. For context, by the same age his old academy friend Pogba had already won three Serie A titles and been included in two Serie A Teams of the Season.
It wasn’t a surprise to some, since players progress at different speeds, a path that Ferguson was happy to predict.
“He is 19, came through our youth system and is built like Jean Tigana for France,” noted the Scot. “But he never got into the limelight there until he was about 24, and I think that will be the same with Lingard.”
Despite Ferguson’s eerily correct prediction, Lingard has struggled to win over United supporters, despite being a local player and attending the 1999 FA Cup final dressed in a personalised United shirt.
On the pitch, Lingard’s relative lack of technical ability seemingly contradicted his preference to play in an attacking midfield position. With teams often sitting deep against Van Gaal’s possession hungry United, the terrace desire was for a player who could play the killer pass or weave through the low block of players on the edge of the opposition’s penalty area. Lingard was rarely that man.
In hindsight, Lingard did not suit Van Gaal’s style of play, although that did not stop him from having the occasional influential impact. There was a goal from range versus West Bromwich Albion, a precise finish while nutmegging the goalkeeper against Newcastle United, and a diving header at Stoke City. The acrobatic spin and shot against Chelsea was surprisingly satisfying.
Lingard saved the best untill last, coming on as a second half substitute in the 2016 FA Cup final against Crystal Palace and volleying home a winner from the edge of the penalty area.
While Van Gaal’s tenure highlighted Lingard’s lack of pace and technical ability, the arrival of José Mourinho proffered the Mancunian a different role, which accentuates his strengths. Lingard became a utility player in Mourinho’s first season, deployed as a wide attacking midfielder, a wide forward and, most interestingly, as a supporting striker alongside Marcus Rashford in United’s 2-0 home win against Chelsea. In each, Lingard’s stamina and work-rate was essential as a high-intensity presser with United out of possession and a willing runner, creating space for his teammates, when in possession.
Mourinho’s first season also brought more evidence of Lingard’s knack for scoring high-quality goals in important contexts. The first came against Leicester City in the Community Shield, with Lingard grabbing the opening goal in a 2-1 victory, weaving his way past four opponents to prod the ball past Kasper Schmeichel. He won United’s 2017 Goal of the Season competition with a piledriver from the edge of the box against Middlesbrough. Most important was his composed finish to put United 2-0 up against Southampton in the EFL Cup final.
Despite Lingard’s growing importance to the team, he was still considered by manager and supporters to be a useful squad player first. It may be reflective of the club’s toil, since Ferguson’s retirement, to get back to the top, that players other firmly in the world-class bracket are routinely dismissed. It is easy to forget that many of Ferguson’s greatest sides had players willing to put in the miles even if they were short on talent, such as Ji-Sung Park, Nicky Butt and the Nevilles. Neither of the brothers nor Butt were the most talented in the Class of 92, but their workrate made each indispensable members of the team.
It surprised few when Lingard was ignored for the first eight League games of the season, United winning six and drawing two. When Lingard was finally drafted into the team, it coincided with United’s first defeat of the season, at Huddersfield Town. Yet, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s early season form faltering, Mourinho placed faith in the Mancunian where fans, perhaps, did not.
The Portuguese manager has shifted Lingard’s role tactically for the 2017/18 season. Rather than playing wide, Mourinho has used Lingard most often as an auxiliary forward, sometimes as a secondary striker, on occasion at number 10, but most often centrally.
In games against tougher opposition, Mourinho has frequently opts for a back three and an attacking trident of a midfielders behind two strikers. United’s 3-1 victory against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium perhaps best summarises Lingard’s new role. Deployed behind Lukaku and Martial, Lingard was used as a high defensive blocker, harrying Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey early in the game, before gradually dropping deeper alongside Pogba and Nemanja Matic, to shore up United’s midfield when out of possession.
In possession, Lingard immediately sought to pass into one of his strikers, who in turn held up the ball for the late Lingard run. United’s clinching third goal came in this fashion, and was rounded off neatly by Lingard, who would have won Man of the Match had it not been for David De Gea’s heroics in goal.
Lingard’s rise comes in the context of Mourinho’s difficult relationship with creative players. Number 10, in particular, is a position of ambiguity, perhaps the most difficult on the pitch. While scoring goals is the objective, goal posts don’t move like defenders do, making a creative midfielder’s task that bit more complicated.
In his time at Real Madrid, Mourinho had a challenging relationship with Mesut Özil on a personal level, but enticed a level of performance from the German that was the best of his career. The pair may be reunited in the future. Wesley Sneijder, too, gave the most complete performances of his career under the Portuguese coach while at Inter Milan.
José’s relationship with 10s seemed to sour after Madrid, with Juan Mata and Oscar both falling short of their coach’s expectations at Chelsea. In Manchester, Mourinho has been reunited Mata, a player who is more well-rounded than in his Chelsea days, and he acquired Henrykh Mkhitaryan from Borussia Dortmund.
"For all the technical ability at United’s disposal, it is Lingard who is now favoured in one of the most technical roles."
Neither has truly won Mourinho’s trust. Mkhitaryan’s form for United has been patchy, with the Armenian gaining five assists in his first three league games this season, but none afterwards. Mata has been more consistent, although it seems that his small physicality and lack of mobility, is a factor in the Spaniard featuring on the right more often than not.
Yet, for all the technical ability at United’s disposal, it is Lingard who is now favoured in one of the most technical roles. Mourinho’s choice has been repaid by a glut of goals in December – one bettered only by Harry Kane. In fact, in all domestic competitions, Lingard has 10 goals in 12 starts this season. Throw in four assists in the league and he is finally producing the end-product that was once his major failing. For the sake of comparison, the much-improved Raheem Sterling enjoys the same minutes-per-goal or assist ratio as Lingard in the league this season, and the Mancunian has more goals than both Kevin De Bruyne and Dele Alli.
The recurring theme is that Lingard continues to score bangers; a solo run from inside his own half against Watford was beautifully complimented by a curling strike at Goodison Park a few weeks later. And while it is unlikely that the player’s purple patch will continue all season, Lingard has already proven so many who doubted his usefulness so very wrong.