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Blame all around in the Jesse Lingard saga

Lingard will run out the rest of his contract at United…

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Manchester United v Aston Villa: The Emirates FA Cup Third Round Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

This was the moment Jesse Lingard’s career at Manchester United ended.

Ok technically I guess the real moment happened seven minutes later when Lingard came off, replaced by Andreas Pereira. The next day Bruno Fernandes was announced as United’s newest player, immediately claiming the number 10 position that Lingard had been playing in for the 2019/20 season.

Lingard wouldn’t even sniff the first team again as he was dropped from the matchday squad the second Solskjaer had enough senior players to fill out his bench without him. He started just four more games that season, a drab first leg away to Brugge, solely to give Bruno rest, FA Cup ties to Derby County and Norwich City, and a dead rubber Europa League match against LASK. His performances didn’t improve and that summer United signed Donny van de Beek to replace the Lingard/Pereira duo as backup to Fernandes.

With Van de Beek’s arrival ahead of the 2020-21 season, Lingard started just two matches for United. A League Cup match at Luton Town in August, and the third round FA Cup tie against Watford in January. He played 10 minutes off the bench in the League Cup against Brighton in between.

You can’t put the writing on the wall any clearer than that. In January of 2021, Jesse Lingard was as far on the outskirts of Manchester United’s first team as one could possibly be.

And yet, on February 1st 2022 Jesse Lingard is still a Manchester United player.

How that’s happened is a quagmire perplexing just about everyone, with everyone ready to point the finger of blame at someone be it Ed Woodard, the club, or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer depending on what narrative they’d like to push.

The truth is everyone shares the blame, including Lingard himself. The club hasn’t done right by him. At times their stance has been ridiculous and at other times logical. Lingard himself has also failed to adequately read the situation at times, acted on his own best interest at others, has been peeved off by some ridiculous things, and hasn’t acted on behalf of his own best interests at other times.

So here we’re going to go through everything.

Last January Lingard was completely on the outs at United and wanted to leave. No one was lining up to sign him because he was awful in 2019-20 and had played all of 179 minutes in the first four months of the new season.

Lingard’s contract was set to expire in the summer and he’d leave. Leaving on a free is still stigmatized in England and Manchester for some reason even though financial flexibility in modern football is a greater asset than carrying deadweight on your squad, but this was a good thing.

Then along came West Ham who were willing to take Lingard on loan until the end of the season. A perfect scenario for everyone. Lingard gets a chance to jumpstart his career, United get his bloated wages off the wage bill six months early, and then he’ll leave in the summer.

We all know what happened next. Lingard took off at West Ham. He scored two goals on his debut and ended the season with nine goals and four assists. That 0.76 npG+A per 90 was more productive than anyone on United bar Edinson Cavani.

For those that have followed Lingard’s career, it wasn’t surprising at all to see Lingard thriving under David Moyes. He is the perfect type of manager for him.

Lingard has always been more of an off-ball attacking midfielder than an on-ball creator. He’s played his best football when he’s given very specific tactical roles to play off the ball. In possession he’s at his best when he’s not required to be ball dominant and can play on the counter. No surprise that most of his nine goals at West Ham came when he had the chance to run in space on counters.

He broke in under Louis van Gaal, he thrived under Jose Mourinho, he plays very well in Gareth’s Southgate’s England set up, and he naturally thrived playing in David Moyes more rigid structure where you get far more opportunities to counter attack. His best games under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came when Solskjaer first took over and he was able to do a lot of off-ball work, and he was sensational in the 2-1 win at the Ethiad in December 2019 when United were playing on the counter. But when United faced lesser opponents and couldn’t play on the counter, Solskajer needed his number 10 to be an on-ball creator. That’s not Lingard’s game and he struggled. Not every player thrives under every coach. That’s ok.

Of course, that somehow wasn’t factored in by anyone going forward. Watching Lingard tear it up for West Ham United saw dollar signs and triggered the one year extension on Lingard’s contract with eyes for a summer sale.

That was dumb. United got greedy. They never should have triggered that one year extension.

The summer is where things get a little murkier. All the blame for failing to move Lingard is being pinned on United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but there’s more going on than that.

Fresh off his success, United slapped an initial £25 million price tag on Lingard’s head. Far too high for a player who would soon be turning 29 in a position where there is much younger talent with more upside available for the same price if not less.

But there’s a difference between putting a £25 million price tag on someone, and sticking to that £25 million. You don’t expect to get that £25 million, it’s merely a starting point. One team calls and asks how much you’re looking for, you give them that number and it gets negotiated down. The prices Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid initially asked for Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane were much higher than what United eventually paid.

Only West Ham never called. They never even made an inquiry. United are blamed for failing to move Lingard but you can’t sell someone when no one is trying to buy him.

Why didn’t West Ham make a move?

As early as mid June reports starting coming out that Lingard did not want to go back to West Ham but rather wanted to stay and fight for his place at United following a candid conversation with Solskjaer.

I don’t know what was said in that conversation but what exactly was Lingard expecting? He plays the same position as United’s best player. He can also play off on the right, which is where United split time between their top young player and their new £77m signing. They also use Dan James there for tactical situations where they need more defense. On the left you’re splitting time between Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial.

A “candid conversation” would see Solskjaer pretty much laying exactly that out. He probably told him you’re in contention to be an impact sub and you’re ahead of Donny van de Beek in this regard - which is based on how he used him early in the season.

Things remained open but quiet. West Ham seemed completely uninterested in convincing Lingard to reconsider nor was Lingard eagerly trying to push a move. In July Solskjaer said in a pitchside interview that Lingard was “part of his plans” but that’s exactly what he said about several players like Alexis Sanchez and Chris Smalling among others before offloading them.

Solskjaer is taking a lot of blame here for “blocking” the move but it doesn’t seem like he would even have that much power. Dan James was told by the manager he was still very much in his plans before the board accepted a £25 million offer for him the next day. If West Ham came with £25 million for Lingard in July, it’s impossible to see the board turning that down, and it’s hard to see a coach standing in the way of a backup he seldom uses.

Most likely the “part of my plans” was a negotiation ploy to try and get as much value as possible.

By September-October, as more players were unhappy with their playing time, Solskjaer came under fire again for these conversations that he had over the summer. He assured Lingard of his playing time only to not play him! He lied to him. Why would he do that? He’s a terrible manager.

Those are hysterical comments that strip context out of everything and were just designed to portray things as because Solskjaer - who was doing a bad job in 2021-22 - was obviously really bad in 2019-20 and 2020-21.

In reality it’s a bit different.

Again we don’t know exactly what was said in Solskjaer’s conversations with players whom he assured over playing time (we do know from Juan Mata’s contract renewal talks in 2019 that Solskajer tends to be bluntly honest in these talks) specifically to Lingard. But since we’re talking ‘playing time assurances’ we can piece things together.

Once United signed Varane, all the talk shifted to “yea we’d like to sign a midfielder, but unless someone leaves, we’re not bringing another player in.” In other words, they had their squad, they had their plan.

As we mentioned above it’s not hard to see how things shaped out. Down the middle you had a combination of Edinson Cavani, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood. On the right you had Greenwood, Sancho, James. Since Cavani and Martial pick up injuries quite frequently you could expect Greenwood to play down the middle quite often. James was going to be used more in games where you need help on defense. On the left you had Pogba, Rashford, Martial, and maybe Elanga. Rashford was injured until October, Martial gets injured a lot, as does Pogba, who would also be needed to play deeper at times. Then there’s Bruno, behind him is Lingard and Van de Beek.

You can see the path for Lingard to get on the field somewhat regularly. He wouldn’t start much but he’d certainly be getting off the bench.

Then on August 27th everything changed. Whatever plan United had went completely out the window when they signed a player who would command that number 9 spot game in game out.

Suddenly there’s no more rotation up front. If Ronaldo wasn’t going to start it was simply to get Cavani minutes. That essentially turned Greenwood and Martial into full time wingers, clogging up the minutes in those positions. Jadon Sancho was going to bounce between both wings. It’s much harder to see where Lingard is getting his minutes now.

That doesn’t mean Solskjaer lied to him (or Mata or Van de Beek) back in July. The plan completely changed at the 11th hour. Every assurance over playing time prior to August 27th was immediately declared null and void.

Lingard could have pushed for a move away at this point, but didn’t. He doubled down. He posted a picture of him as youth player with Cristiano Ronaldo and spoke of how excited he was to get the chance to play with him. There’s every reason to believe at that point he very much wanted to stay to experience playing with Ronaldo.

West Ham immediately turned around and signed Nikola Vlašić on August 31st for £33 million. Same position, five years younger. Makes sense.

Throughout this whole ordeal Lingard has continually failed to properly assess the situation or read the room correctly. No matter how much Solskjaer did or didn’t tell him he was going to play, just look at the group of players ahead of you, how much did you really expect to play when your primary position is held by United’s best player and vice captain?

Yes, you did well at West Ham but doing well at West Ham doesn’t assure success at Manchester United. Especially when the teams play different styles and the manager is asking you to do different things. I understand having confidence in yourself but you’ve never been good at the things Ole Gunnar Solskjaer asks his number 10 to do.

But at no point did Lingard try to force a move away. At no point did he skip training or hand in a transfer request. Some say he didn’t do that out of respect for the club but I don’t see how it’s disrespectful to hand in a transfer request? The fans aren’t going to turn on you. We all want you to succeed, and we all know it’s not going to happen here.

In August there were reports that he would look to force a move away if he wasn’t in the starting XI against Southampton, which is just so laughable. The team had just won their opening game 5-1! Who are you replacing in the XI dude?

Lingard didn’t start (he did come on as a sub) but guess what, he didn’t try to force a move away either (United did sign Ronaldo that week as mentioned before that could have lead to a change in mind).

In September he was still getting angry about ridiculous things, as Laurie Whitwell reported in The Athletic.

Let’s recap, he came off the bench and scored against Newcastle. Then midweek he came off the bench and committed a howler vs Young Boys that cost United a point. He wasn’t dropped, but rather he again came off the bench against West Ham where he scored the winner. He then started United’s NEXT match, the League Cup fixture against West Ham where he was terrible. You can say what you want about the quality of players in that match but Mason Greenwood came on as a sub and lit the match on fire. If you’re looking for “who deserves to start Saturday’s match against Villa” you’re going to go with that guy.

But again Jesse, who exactly did you expect to start over? Ronaldo? Bruno? Yes Pogba and Greenwood had started cooling off from their tremendous starts but at that point it had just been one bad match. You didn’t yet know if it was just a blip or if they were in bad form the way we do now. At the time, dropping them would have been ridiculous.

That brings us to January and once again Lingard failing to move.

In December, Lingard came out and said he wasn’t going to leave the club in January. This is the correct move and if I were his agent I’d have advised him to do the same. If a team is interested in you now they can get you for “free” in six months. If they have to pay a transfer fee now, that will leave them with less money to pay you in wages and bonuses. If you wait until the summer, some of that transfer fee outlay can go into your pockets. It’s the sensible economic move.

It also meant that United weren’t focused on moving him. Why focus on trying to move him on a loan if he’s leaving at the end of the season? Rather you should focus on moving the players who can either play themselves into form with the minutes, or can play themselves into a permanent transfer where you can cash in a fee.

Lingard going on loan wasn’t really on the table until Newcastle decided they weren’t just going to pay his wages, but they were going to pay him more than what he was earning at United. Suddenly that’s very enticing.

Alas the move fell apart because Newcastle refused to pay the £12m ‘survival bonus’ United were insisting on for the loan. And why shouldn’t they insist on that?

Ever since Ed Woodward came to power United have been ridiculed for their weaknesses in the market. They get walked over all the time and it’s something that every fan agrees needs to be fixed. The only way to fix it, is to sometimes walk away from transfers.

United paid £80 million for Harry Maguire because they were in a position of weakness. He was the guy they wanted, and Leicester had him under contract and didn’t need the money. They could wait until they got exactly what they wanted.

United were now in the position of power. Newcastle are desperate to stay up, this is the guy they see as playing a big part in helping them do that. Staying up is worth a lot of money, and so United feel if they help them achieve that goal they should get some.

As Laurie Whitwell reports at the Athletic, there’s also the fear that Newcastle are going to eventually become the next Manchester City. They can crash the big boys party and make the big six a big seven. That’s not ideal and it’s a valid concern from United. If going down delays that by a year or two that’s good, so United shouldn’t be helping them out for next to nothing.

But good business comes at a cost, and in this case for United the cost is not doing right by a player who’s been affiliated with the club for two decades.

Fans are mad at the club because they struggle to get fees for fringe players the way Chelsea can - or just get any fee at all. They also get mad at the club for failing to do right by their players who aren’t going to play.

The truth is, you can only fix one or the other, not both. If United were to focus on doing right by their players and letting them leave for free, the message would be sent to every club out there. If you’re trying to get a United castoff, just wait till the end of the window and they’ll let him leave! Then you won’t be able to sell anyone.

It’s doubtful we’ve seen the last of Lingard in a United shirt though. His contract may expire in the summer but Ralf Rangnick has made it clear that if you’re here and can help the team, he will call your name. Rangnick has rightly realized that the club still benefits from a player who is playing for a contract elsewhere, something which is commonplace in American sports.

The entire situation is messy. It sucks for a lot of people that this is the way it played out. But we didn’t get here because of the choices of one entity, we got here because of the combination of choices from everyone involved.