In among the injuries, losses of form and tactical changes at Manchester United this season, Jesse Lingard has seized the day.
Opportunities always emerge for fringe players to stake a claim for a place in the XI and stay there—just look at Christian Fuchs of Leicester City, or Ben Watson of Watford—and Lingard has carved out a veritable role for himself under Louis van Gaal.
He has started nine Premier League and four European games since October, per WhoScored.com, and his rise has, in some ways, coincided with Memphis Depay’s alarming downfall.
Van Gaal switched from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 in the summer of 2015 in a perceived attempt to push another player further toward the lone striker, gifting him more support. It opened the door for Juan Mata to return to his natural No. 10 position and also sparked hope for Adnan Januzaj; the by-product of this was an opening on the wing—an opening several young players would then vie for.
Memphis was given every chance to stake his claim, with Van Gaal persisting in starting him consistently early on in an attempt to work the kinks out of his game. But Anthony Martial soon emerged as United’s go-to left-sider—much to some fans’ dismay early on, it should be noted—and Lingard, over the course of several months, has proved to be more productive, more reliable and harder-working than the Netherlands international has so far.
Lingard has been a consistent feature in Manchester United’s vastly improved performances over the last week or so.
The Red Devils have dominated play against Derby County (3-1), Stoke City (3-0) and Chelsea (1-1) in succession, causing optimistic hopes that this team are set to go on a rampaging run of form akin to the one in March/April 2015, where they beat Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City emphatically.
There have been plus-points all over the pitch: Daley Blind, Chelsea error aside, is passing well out of the back line and creating chances; Martial is ripping right-backs to shreds with ease; Wayne Rooney is shooting, scoring and linking attacks (on and off); and Mata’s commitment to the pressing/defensive aspect of the game is just as impressive as his slicing passes.
Lingard has scored in two of United’s last three games, stealing in to convert a Cameron Borthwick-Jackson cross against Stoke and executing an incredible strike into the top corner against Chelsea. He’s sewn up the right-wing slot in the XI as the team crest into form in a not-too-dissimilar way to how Mata did last season during the purple patch.
One thing you can never accuse Lingard of is a lack of production; throughout his career he’s scored goals despite never playing as a striker, with his golazo strike at the Under-21 European Championships for England and his debut hat-trick for Birmingham City on loan illustrating his ability to slot in seamlessly and impact.
His four goals from nine Premier League starts this season is a record the likes of Memphis will be leering at enviously. It’s also undeniable that, tactically speaking, Lingard’s been the infusion of enthusiasm United have needed to spark much-improved attacking performances and please the crowd.
Blind’s firm passes from the back are being aimed between the lines in an attempt to move the ball from back to front far more quickly than it has been. This requires the advanced midfielders to drop into pockets between the lines to collect the passes, turn and push forward, and their touch needs to be good enough to control a strongly hit ball—else it be intercepted in a dangerous area.
Matteo Darmian is also doing the same, though immediately after the pass, he is able to run forward and offer support/a return ball because he’s playing full-back, not centre-back. Whisper it quietly, but this method of moving the ball forward is a hallmark of Marcelo Bielsa/Pep Guardiola play.
Martial and Mata have been collecting these passes and turning with ease, as you’d expect, but Lingard’s not far behind in the effectiveness category. Darmian and Co. have been happy to play the ball into him under pressure; there is no hesitation in players’ movements when passing to the Englishman.
Once again, this is a fillip for Lingard. He’s earned the trust of his team-mates, adapted his game to suit the style and is emerging as a productive attacking midfielder who is grabbing key goals.
The 23-year-old is a hard player to define and it’s tough to compare him to anyone else, but there are Raheem Sterling-like qualities to his game: the jinking dribbles, the slight build, and the athleticism he shows.
But there’s already far more to Lingard’s game in the final third, with the player exhibiting far better instincts for goal than Sterling does. He’s three years older than the Manchester City man, admittedly, but he’s played less than half the games—and many of those have been at Championship level.
It begs the question: Is Lingard a late-blooming star set to provide an accidental, long-term solution to Manchester United’s forward line, or is he just filler at a time of need?
You can be sure United eventually called off pursuits of Sadio Mane and Felipe Anderson in part due to the emergence of their current No. 35. What the club needed was a spark, and while fans yearned for an exotic signing to provide it, in reality, a player who has been at the club for nearly 16 years has done so instead.
He works hard, vies for possession, embraces Van Gaal’s tactical plan, serves a function in build-up and has a habit of nicking goals. You can say absolutely none of these things about his closest competitor for a position in the team, the current No. 7.
The differences between Martial—a potential world-beating star—and Lingard are obvious; the latter will likely never reach the former’s intended ceiling if all goes to plan.
For that reason, Lingard’s position in the XI will forever be under scrutiny, because if United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward decides to drop £30-plus million on an established new winger or attacking midfielder, it won’t be Mata or Martial who drop from the setup.
But Lingard strikes you as the kind of player United would really love to have around for the next five years whatever the capacity. He is, for now, a temporary fix; he’s capable of slotting in, melding to the team quickly and producing.
As the months drag on and his impact refuses to lessen, though, theories over just how long he remains a feature in this team are rightly being revised.