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.