Jesse Lingard is one of the most polarizing players in Manchester United’s squad. Some fans see him as a young academy player who’s still developing. Others see him as overrated and overpaid; a player who’s not good enough to play for Manchester United and cares more about his Instagram than the club.
Neither of those opinions are particularly right but they’re not completely wrong either. The truth is Lingard largely falls in between those two lines of thought.
No Manchester United player benefited more from José Mourinho than Jesse Lingard. That makes sense. In a 2004 interview with the Portuguese Jornal de Noticias Mourinho said his ideal were players with “titles: zero, money: little.”
That was Lingard when Mourinho arrived. He’d made just 27 Premier League appearances at that point. He’s a player with some talent but one who will also run and do whatever he’s told — right up Mourinho’s wheelhouse.
Due to those attributes, Mourinho quickly started preferring him ahead of the flair of Juan Mata or Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He played him up top and was rewarded with a 13 goal, 7 assist season (all competitions) in 2018.
For United fans this was a good sign. Lingard had just finished his third year with the first team, just like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. They were all going to continue to get better!
But it’s important to remember that Lingard isn’t that young. Lingard was a late bloomer (something Sir Alex Ferguson predicted he would be). Lingard was 22 when he finally cracked the first team.
Being a late bloomer isn’t a negative thing, but it makes evaluating growth far more difficult. Perhaps nothing sums up how we should be looking at Lingard more than this Mike Goodman tweet in the 2017 preseason.
Jesse Lingard is— Mike L. Goodman (@TheM_L_G) July 23, 2017
As I mentioned Lingard went on to score 13 goals that season. Not bad for a 24/25 year old attacking player.
But is Lingard really an attacking player?
Mourinho put him there because he had the defensive discipline that Mkhitaryan, Martial, Mata, Rashford, and Alexis Sánchez didn’t, which is the tribute that Mourinho values most. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer kept him there probably because he didn’t really have other options. Statistically, as an attacker, Lingard is... not great! At 26 years old his 5 goal 4 assist output is probably indicative of who he really is.
As the stats say, if you exclusively use Lingard as an attacking player then he’s certainly not good enough to play for Manchester United. But what the stats don’t say is if you identify Lingard for what he really is, he’s a tremendous asset.
Jesse Lingard is a squad player. And he’s a damn good one at that.
When there’s a big game you want Jesse Lingard on the pitch. His work rate will keep the team balanced and he always seems to rise to the occasion. He’s scored in the FA Cup Final and EFL Cup Final. He scored at Anfield last season. He’s scored twice against Chelsea and four times against Arsenal. Not bad for a player with just 29 goals.
I’ve always seen Lingard as today’s version of Ji-Sung Park. He’ll put in a shift and do the job that’s asked of him, (the fact that both players seem to always score against Arsenal only helps the comparison). They’ll both come up with big goals from time to time but the second you start depending on them for scoring is the second they start letting you down.
There’s nothing wrong with being a squad player. Nicky Butt still made 30+ appearances every year despite being behind Paul Scholes and Roy Keane. At the start of every season Sir Alex Ferguson knew of 20 games where he’d need Butt, and that with injuries and suspensions there would be more.
That’s how Solskjaer needs to use Lingard. You can’t have him out there every week, but he’s a big value coming off the bench and making 20-25 league starts.
Now the question is, where do you use Lingard.
Lingard has a lot of value as an attacker. His pressing ability is vital for Solskjaer’s system. He changed the Burnley match last year and was the catalyst behind United coming back to earn a 2-2 draw. But as we saw before his creativity isn’t great, which can diminish United’s attack.
The answer should be to look at Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who’s far more similar to Lingard then you might think. When breaking through at Southampton, the Ox was considered a wide attacker. Both United and Arsenal were after him with the Gunners winning out.
United caught a break there as Oxlade-Chamberlain never became the player he was supposed to be. He scored just 20 goals and 32 assists in 198 appearances for the Gunners.
Eyebrows were raised when Liverpool spent £35 million for him but Jurgen Klopp had a plan. He brought the Ox off the wing and put him as part of a midfield three. A runner who could do the dirty work in midfield for the benefit of the team.
Oxlade-Chamberlain excelled so much in that role that he emerged as a first choice player for Gareth Southgate’s England squad heading into the World Cup. When Chamberlain got hurt at the end of the year, it was Lingard who stepped into that role for England.
With United losing Ander Herrera this summer and not bringing in anyone to replace him, I’d like to see Lingard given a chance to play Herrera’s ‘free eight’ role in a 4-3-3. The Reds struggled mightily when Herrera wasn’t in the team last year, due to not having any other midfielders with his versatility.
The role would require Lingard to be more defensive but it’s not too dissimilar from the role he played with England at the World Cup. Don’t forget defending isn’t foreign to Lingard — Louis van Gaal lined him up as a wing back in his debut.
Ultimately the most important thing for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is to see Lingard for who he is. He’s a squad player that can be a huge value in a variety of different situations.
If Solskjaer recognizes that, United are in great shape this year. If he sees him as more of an every day (attacking) player, then he’s limiting how dangerous United can be.