Whilst everyday football fans look to the daily World Cup matches in hope of being awed by something special, there is always a sense of uncertainty about watching players from the club you support plying their trade for their national team. Clubs like Manchester United are familiar with their stars gracing the biggest stages and the 2018 World Cup in Russia is no different. Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, and Romelu Lukaku have all reached the knock out stages of the World Cup with varying degrees of personal success to date. Does it matter to club supporters how these players perform on the biggest stage, and does it have any bearing on their clubs in August?
Jesse Lingard started England’s opening games against Tunisia and Panama. Lingard has been given great freedom by national team coach Gareth Southgate, and it is this freedom which tends to bring the best out of Lingard (think of his performances against Arsenal, Burnley and Watford last season). In the game against Tunisia, Lingard started lively and linked well with Dele Ali, though as Tunisia equalised and got back into the game, Lingard’s influence waned. This is something which also happened during Manchester United’s season and saw Lingard drift in and out of games. At a young age, Lingard has already an impressive goal highlight reel and he added another to his tally against Panama with a spectacular, self-made goal topping off an all-round excellent performance. What Lingard needs to demonstrate is more graft and fight when the game has been taken to his team. Winston Churchill once stated, “we shall fight them on the beaches … we shall never surrender” and it seems as though Lingard needs to channel Churchill to be the complete package for England and Manchester United. If England do well in this tournament it will hopefully be on the back of Jesse Lingard-Dele Alli dynamism in midfield. After years of doubts, Lingard has finally proved that he has all the key ingredients and this is the time to prove it.
José Mourinho has taken criticism in his tenure about his handling of two squad players who have not yet grasped the nettle in Russia. Marcus Rashford missed an important chance against Belgium last Thursday night but he will be hoping for another opportunity to prove his worth before the tournament concludes. Mourinho and his use of Paul Pogba has been a subject of great debate – how to find that perfect position – with José relegating him to a defensive midfield role during his first season and never fully liberating him during his second. Following Manchester United’s scoreless draw with Bournemouth at the end of last season, Paul Scholes called for Pogba to be played in a more advanced role. While Pogba played in a more advanced role – and duly thrived – in the next game away to Everton, he has been played in a number of different roles at United last season. Sadly for Pogba, Deschamps has similarly played Pogba in a more holding role thus far, due in large part to the great attacking options available to France. Pogba scored a dogged goal against Australia in France’s opening fixtures but will hope to take games by the scruff of the neck in Russia and play himself into form for the latter part of the tournament, as he has hoped for much of his time at Manchester United over the last two seasons. Consistency will be key for Pogba – similar to Lingard – and Pogba will need to manage games more carefully and sensibly to stay in the French starting eleven.
Eden Hazard accused Romelu Lukaku of “hiding” in the first half of Belgium’s win over Panama last week. Lukaku went on to score two goals in the second half and added a further brace against Tunisia in the following game. Whether fans rate Lukaku as an elite striker yet is open to debate, but he has an incredible goal scoring record. Still only 25, United fans will hope to see Lukaku perform in the biggest games at the 2018 World Cup and develop his big game prowess. Last season at United, there were murmurs about Lukaku being a flat track bully and that he did not contribute enough in the bigger games. Lukaku notably missed a big chance against Liverpool at Anfield in October but proved doubters wrong with an excellent goal – along with an all-round performance - against Chelsea in February at Old Trafford. United fans will hope that Lukaku performs on the biggest stage and brings that lethal form back to Old Trafford in August.
The sight of Marcos Rojo carrying Lionel Messi on his back last Tuesday was no doubt ironic, but a welcome sight to Manchester United fans. Assured that his cruciate is in fine working order, United fans would happily greet a fully fit Rojo rejoining the squad in the new season. Rojo has never had a consistent run in the team but a clean bill of health would be helpful at Manchester United, with defensive options often lacking in recent seasons.
New transfer acquisitions are often the biggest desire of any fans during a tournament but a fit, returning squad flying high on the back of respective successes in the World Cup would be a close second for Manchester United in 2018. Next season will see the José Mourinho regime enter its third season and a lot of players will hope that the World Cup will provide them with the platform needed to properly propel themselves to the next stage of success in their careers. Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard can take hope from the notion that Wayne Rooney used Euro 2004 success to propel himself to phenomenal levels in the following years. There are a lot of players at Manchester United still playing on the basis of their potential but there comes a time in every player’s career in which their potential becomes an albatross unless they can finally succeed and reach the highest level.