Only Romelu Lukaku has had a greater attacking influence for Manchester United than Jesse Lingard this season, though the £75million summer signing has enjoyed – and endured – almost double the number of minutes.
Only Mo Salah and Sergio Aguero have been more efficient than Lingard in their creative duties, with the Manchester United man producing a goal or assist every 84 minutes of Premier League football.
Not bad when you consider that Lingard was for a long time considered by many to be the poster boy for the plummeting standards at Old Trafford.
He scored the very first goal of David Moyes’ disastrous reign and he made his first Premier League start in Louis van Gaal’s maiden game in English football. Maybe those coincidences and the timing of his gradual ascent have made him harder for some to appreciate. Maybe it is also because, during a difficult phase in United’s recent history, Lingard has made absolutely no secret of the fact that he’s loving living the dream – that is, playing for the club that he has called home since the age of seven.
Eighteen years on from his induction at the club within one of their satellite development centres, Lingard is now finally ‘making the jump’, as Jose Mourinho put it. Mid-jump, he had developed a knack of scoring crucial Wembley goals for his boyhood club, but only now is he being seen as one of United’s pivotal men, rather than a mere squad filler.
“It’s one thing to be a young talent, and another thing is to be a very good player,” said Mourinho after Lingard’s tenth goal in all competitions rounded off a much-needed 2-0 win at Everton. “Some players are not capable to do that jump. They go from great potential young players to normal players. I think Jesse is making that jump.”
Lingard has certainly taken his sweet time. He turned 25 last month in the middle of purple patch that has seen him bag seven Premier League goals since November 28, a spell in which only Harry Kane has been more prolific. His age means the academy graduate can no longer be classed as a breakthrough talent, even if that is essentially what he remains, as Sir Alex Ferguson predicted.
“Jesse Lingard is going to be some player,” he said 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.”
Despite having five years on Marcus Rashford, the pair’s emergence at the highest level has been almost simultaneous. The 20-year-old Rashford has played only 104 fewer minutes in the Premier League than his friend. In contrast, Phil Jones – who is the same age as Lingard – has played almost 10,000 more minutes, despite persistent injuries. Lingard made Ferguson’s bench in 2011 but he took almost three more years, three loan spells and a couple of managers before he was handed a top-flight start. After that appearance was cut short by injury, it was another 15 months and another loan, this time at Derby, before another opportunity in the XI and his first 90 minutes.
Perhaps being a slowburner, especially when short-termism is the prevailing mood at Old Trafford, has led to the general lack of appreciation of Lingard’s talents. Some United fans still remain ignorant as to what those talents actually are.
“People look for intricate things but, with Jesse, it was simple: he affected the game and he could clearly play.” That was what stood out for Mike Glennie, the coach who took Lingard into United’s development centre, and it remains an apt description of the England international.
The other obvious explanation as to why Lingard took the long road is that, quite simply, footballers progress at different rates. And Lingard was always at a disadvantage compared to many of his peers owing to his size.
“There comes a time when you know a player’s not going to be a giant, and Jesse had to adjust to being in with bigger and stronger lads,” former United academy director Paul McGuinness explained to United Review in 2015. Indeed, Lingard sometimes dropped down an age group for the aid of his development, but that physical deficit perhaps helped him to hone the scrappy side to his nature that has seen him compete with – and in some cases, see off – players with far grander reputations. There has always been the expectation that somebody better will be along shortly to take Lingard’s place. It hasn’t happened yet.
Despite what some perceive from his Instagram activity and his goal celebrations as cockiness, Lingard admits he has not always retained the unshakeable self-belief required to make it at the highest level.
“I have to start believing in myself more, that is what the coaches have been telling me,” he said after getting Moyes off the mark on a pre-season tour of Far East in 2013. A simple tweet from Rio Ferdinand praising his contribution in a Manchester derby win in 2016 offered another “massive confidence boost”, while it was his confidence again that Lingard cited when asked by Inside United to name what had improved after a breakout season under Van Gaal ended with him scoring a brilliant winner in the FA Cup final.
A season and a half later under Mourinho, perhaps it is only now Lingard feels like he truly belongs in the United first XI. “He is being more consistent, he is adaptable, he understands better the game, he understands the different spaces and positions,” said his manager after the Everton victory.
Lingard has also developed more into a player in the Mourinho mould in terms of mentality; maturity has arrived late but hit hard. “It was always good vibes when you’re younger,” he told Sky Sports in the summer. “When you get older you realise it’s all about winning games and winning trophies.”
If United are going to do much of either between now and the end of the season, Lingard will have a larger say in the outcome than most outside the club ever thought possible.