“We still have five players for this position. I cannot give one player chances to play and kill the others. To kill the others, I think I already did that with Memphis by considering him the last option and by not giving him any option. But with the other guys I think you would be asking me why Mata is not playing or why Marcus Rashford doesn’t have a chance, or why Jesse Lingard, a national team player, is not playing.”
Jose Mourinho must have spent the previous weeks practising his poker face. Delivering one of his customary warnings to Anthony Martial back in January, he began to list the Frenchman’s main rivals for a starting spot:
Juan Mata, scorer of 38 goals and provider of 24 assists since joining Manchester United in the winter of 2014.
Marcus Rashford, boy wonder, debut-loving teenager, and eventual heir to the Ibrahimovic throne.
Jesse Lingard, ‘national team player’. Mourinho did not even allow a smirk to break across his face as he explained how England’s thrice-capped 24-year-old was helping to keep Martial out of the side.
United toiled against Blackburn, having to call upon the talents of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba to secure safe passage, but that should not mask the underwhelming performance of Lingard.
He had two shots, neither of which were on target. He did not create a single goalscoring opportunity. He did not attempt a single tackle or interception. His substitution on the hour mark was long overdue.
It might feel like a harsh barometer, but his efforts must be judged against that of his replacement: Pogba created more chances and made more passes in 28 minutes. Lingard will never be the world’s most expensive player, but if this was his audition for a more regular starting spot, he failed miserably. It bears repeating: he is three months older than Pogba.
Lingard’s supporters will point to the movement which aided Rashford’s equaliser, but he was simply the carrot which took a more than willing Blackburn defence on a merry chase. Those singing his praises for that action have set the bar low, for otherwise he was ineffective at best. At worst, he actively impinged upon the United attack, drifting central with frustrating consistency, providing no width, and unnecessarily dropping deep.
When Mourinho called upon the quality of Ibrahimovic and Pogba to rescue a flailing United, it was a damning indictment on some of those he had trusted with a starting spot. Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan impressed, while Michael Carrick was quietly efficient. Martial was poor, but his recent showings have afforded him another opportunity.
The same can surely not be said of Lingard for much longer. It was in October of last year that Paul Scholes questioned why Mourinho was not more “ruthless” with his squad in his first summer. If the Portuguese is to show the cold-blooded, merciless side which delivers trophies, then how can Lingard survive the cull? Does the fact that he joined the club aged eight spare him? Should he be allowed to stay simply because he is more willing to be a squad player than most, despite the fact he can patently be improved upon? Is he valuable because he is the best friend of the best player? Mourinho was appointed manager because he makes the difficult decisions, but Lingard’s performances should make it an easy call come the summer.
Of course, with United edging closer to a second domestic cup final of the season, the Portuguese might be well-served to keep Lingard around for any potential visit to Wembley; the ‘national team player’ has scored as many goals at the national team stadium (2) as he has at every other ground combined since last March.
Lingard has fewer Premier League goals than Daley Blind this season, and only one more assist than Chris Smalling. He is a talented player but, in a cut-throat world, he is not good enough for Manchester United, or at least not where Manchester United want to be.
If Mourinho truly wants to improve his squad, there is only one answer as to whether Lingard is good enough. Can a ‘national team player’ really survive when surrounded by international class?