Jesse Lingard is one of the most controversial players amongst Manchester United fans. Unusually, however, it has little to do with his skills, and more to do with why he plays. Many fans complain that Lingard struggles to maintain possession on the counterattack, is weak in the air, and does not beat defenders.
These criticisms are correct. Thus, the question one must ask is: why does José Mourinho continue to play him major minutes? In many ways, Lingard is more than just a squad player, but an frequent starter.
The way to answer this question is by looking at what Mourinho likes in a winger. During José’s second stint at Chelsea, he sold Juan Mata because the latter could not track back. A winger’s willingness to play defense all over the pitch allows Mourinho to fully engage in man-marking. Consequently, Mata was not a natural fit at Chelsea.
This strategy allows Mourinho, in his words, to “park the plane,” i.e., having a winger who can track back and defend allows Mourinho’s team to score and then hold on to a small lead. Let us look at what happened to his 4-2-3-1 while at Chelsea:
Chelsea, at this moment in the match against Liverpool, were playing with nine defenders. This demonstrates how Mourinho likes to defend when his club takes a lead. Lingard has exemplified this type of play on the tour. Below is a video of him doing that against Real Salt Lake.
Thus, in the sense of defense, Lingard is much more a prototypical Mourinho player than a traditional out-and-out winger. At Chelsea, this resulted in the benching of Mata, and significant playing of Willian, Ramires, and at times even Ivanović on the right wing. At United, while Lingard will occasionally play over Anthony Martial, Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Marcus Rashford, this is partially due to his ability to track back and energy as a box-to-box wing.
Additionally, Lingard’s role for United’s attack is to drop off, receive, and recycle. In this way, his job is to make smart passes, advance the attack, and not turnover possession. He is not looked to as a significant shot creator, but rather, as a player who improves any individual possession. In this sense, Lingard acts as a pivot for excellent midfield long passers such as Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera.
Unsurprisingly, per WhoScored.com, Lingard completed 87.9% of his passes during the 2016-17 season and was only disposed .9 times per match. Overall, the Manchester United lifelong wing outperformed several of his compatriots per WhoScored’s match score.
- He played on the attacking right midfield eleven times last season with an average rating of 6.93.
- He played as a right wing in the 4-3-3 seven times with an average rating of 6.65 (by far his lowest).
- He played as an attacking left midfielder three times with an average rating of 7.01 (his highest).
- He played as a left wing in the 4-3-3 two times with an average rating of 6.85.
- And he played once as a striker, with a rating of 6.58.
His season rating on the attacking right midfield wing was higher than Mkhitaryan and Rashford. His season rating on the attacking left midfield wing was higher than Martial, Ashley Young, and tied with Rashford.
Lingard is clearly worse in the 4-3-3. More pointedly, he gets worse the closer up the pitch he plays. Lingard is good as an attacking midfield player in the 4-2-3-1 and the 3-5-3, whether on the wing or up centrally, and arguably better and more versatile than any of United’s other options. Given Martial’s potential, he seems to be the main competitor for minutes with Lingard. The former is known as a better shot creator and goal scorer. Yet, the stats will dispute that claim.
Both Lingard's and Martial's average pass distance this past season was 13 meters. Martial had an 82% completion rate and Lingard an 88%. In that sense, Lingard is absolutely a better passer than Martial.
Furthermore, both players appeared in 25 matches during the 2016-17 Premier League season. Martial scored four goals and created twenty-four total chances. Lingard scored only one goal, however, created twenty-nine total chances. Thus, in the Premier League, Martial is a better goal scorer but creates fewer chances. In Europe, however, both playing ten matches, Martial only scored one goal, compared to Lingard’s two, and created five chances to Lingard’s nine.
Additionally, Lingard simply gives more energy and effort than Martial. Below is a heat map of Lingard’s performance against Chelsea.
HEAT MAP: Jesse Lingard ran his socks off for Man Utd today before being substituted.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 16, 2017
Covered the attacking line. pic.twitter.com/Abo05Er7CD
When one examines Martial’s heat map, however, what is noticeable is that he is primarily focused on one side of the pitch. Below is his heat map (provided by The Daily Mail’s MatchZone) during United’s 2-0 victory over Southampton this past season.
Thus, evidence can lead us to argue that Martial is a better goal scorer with greater potential, but a worse defender and shot creator. Given what Mourinho prefers in a winger, and also noting that the majority of Manchester United’s wing options are primarily out-and-out players, it makes sense that Lingard gets regular minutes where Martial does not. Lingard is a high-energy, smart, and tactical player, which are attributes that Mourinho generally appreciates.
Consequently, while nobody should argue that Lingard has the highest potential of United’s young attackers, the reasons he plays under Mourinho are clear. His defense, willingness to run all over the pitch, smart passing, and tactical mind have made him a club favorite under the Portuguese manager.