Jesse Lingard continues to be an enigma to those of us not of a Manchester United persuasion. He’s homegrown, quick, skillful and young, ticking several of the boxes that would typically make him an easy player to like, yet too often Lingard leaves me cold. His end product is regularly left wanting, as is the tendency to go missing for large periods of matches.
That divisiveness is not shared only by neutral observers, but United supporters too. There are many who see Lingard’s presence in the starting XI as an indication of weakness, a trait Marouane Fellaini shares. Grumbles will have accompanied his start at the Riverside Stadium. They’re not grumbling now.
What was certain is that the arrival of Jose Mourinho threatened – and continues to threaten – Lingard’s place in United’s first-team squad. The Portuguese is a coach whose appointment inevitably provokes a period of spending, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan was soon on the plane from Germany. Having managed 1,634 Premier League minutes last season, Lingard has only reached 768 so far in 2016/17. The suspicion that United’s academy graduates would struggle to progress under Mourinho has not been disproved thus far.
Occasionally however, we can all see the light with Lingard. Afforded a first league start since January 2, he was the game’s best player as Manchester United finally moved higher than sixth in the Premier League. Middlesbrough’s lethargy until the final ten minutes afforded an attacking midfielder plenty of space, but Lingard used it expertly.
With Marcus Rashford as a central striker rather than the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mourinho had no choice but to find a plan B. Rashford drifted wide and ran down the channels to drag away one of Middlesbrough’s central defenders, creating a space for an attacking midfielder to run into. Lingard was only too happy to oblige and, in the absence of Mkhitaryan, there was nobody more suitable for that role. Lingard created two chances, had four shots and completed four dribbles. On those last two statistics, no teammate managed more.
Too often when we talk of partnerships we limit them by position: centre-back partnerships, central midfield partnerships and strike partnerships. Just as important are the relationships between those in different lines of the formation: A striker and an attacking midfielder, or full-back and winger. United’s second goal was the perfect example, with Lingard streaming forward and Rashford making two separate runs to create uncertainty and space for his teammate. Lingard’s finish was exceptional. That is exactly what teams work on the training ground to perfect.
Lingard is unlikely to ever be first choice under Mourinho, but that hardly needs spell the end for his Old Trafford career. Alex Ferguson’s dynasty was built not just on superstars, individual brilliance and the starting XI, but those who acted as the mortar between the bricks. Lingard can be the selfless comrade that helps out when needed, never moans and only ever offers his all.
“Lingard is going to be some player, too,” said Ferguson in 2012. “He is 19, came through our youth system and is built like Jean Tigana was for France. But he never got into the limelight there until he was about 24, and I think that will be the same with Lingard. He will become a player when he’s 22 or so.” The talk of Tigana is optimistic, but I’m as guilty as anyone of focusing on what Lingard is not rather than what he is.
Perhaps that was a mistake. At the age of 24, Lingard has played almost 70 times for his boyhood club, won both domestic trophies, played in the Champions League and Europa League and earned senior international caps. He is also clearly held in high regard by Ferguson, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho. All three are unlikely to be wrong.
“We didn’t have A, B, C, D, E, F and G – but we do have L, M, N, S, O, P,” said Mourinho to BT Sport after the game, referring to his team’s absentees. That describes Lingard perfectly, United’s useful JL.
Having been given only two Manchester United starts over the last month, Lingard has scored crucial goals in each of those games against Middlesbrough and against Southampton at Wembley, and been Man of the Match in the second of those matches. Why wouldn’t you want somebody like that to stick around?