When Mourinho came to town in May, Manchester United had just won the FA Cup courtesy of Jesse Lingard. As possibly the least talented of a crop of youngsters that were given sustained opportunities during Louis Van Gaal’s last few months, his contribution was supposed to be forgotten to time.
Theoretically, Lingard is in the worst possible situation, considering Jose Mourinho’s track record with youth. Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and Memphis all arrived for astronomical fees that mean they can’t be ignored, while Marcus Rashford’s rise was so rapid that his development is a priority. Even Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick Jackson are fairly young and talented, and with the right application could follow in the footsteps of Raphael Varane and Kurt Zouma.
However, Lingard has none of these advantages. As one of many homegrown players at United, there is no pressure to justify a transfer fee and no need to play him specifically. Although he does score some spectacular goals, Lingard is nothing more than a slightly above-average winger. His crossing needs a lot of work, and his decision making is often suspect.
Most damningly though, Lingard is 24 in December. While he may still technically be eligible for the PFA Young Player of the Year, in reality he has reached the mid-life of his footballing career. Old Trafford demands to play host to the very best stars, and Lingard just does not compare. At that age, both Messi and Ronaldo had already won the Ballon D’Or, while Neymar and Bale had successfully shouldered the unbearable burden of entire nations on their back. Fabregas, Suarez, Pedro, Muller, Gotze and several others had already contributed to major national tournament wins.
As of today, Lingard’s greatest season has seen him contribute 6 goals in 40 appearances, for a team that finished fifth in the Premier League. In a season where Jamie Vardy scored 24 league goals.
With the arrival of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to complement an already overloaded frontline including Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Memphis, Martial, Rashford and Ashley Young, it looked like Lingard’s time at the club may have come to an end. Most of those players are more talented and accomplished, and many are younger than him. In a side that could boast players of the calibre of Paul Pogba and David De Gea in their ranks this season, Jesse Lingard promises to look like the odd man out.
Yet, the academy product was given significant time during pre-season, and was selected in the starting line-up for the Community Shield. Playing against defending champions Leicester City, this promised to be a difficult match, So it proved, as the United offence could barely string a couple of passes together, let alone actually threaten Kasper Schmeichel’s goal. Even with the loss of N’Golo Kante,, the Foxes’ defence was proving to be solid.
That was until Lingard took it on himself to change the complexion of the match. Pouncing onto a loose ball closer to the centre circle than the Leicester goal, the winger drove forward. Beating four different players, he found himself surprisingly faced with only Kasper Schmeichel. With a composure that often eluded him last season, Lingard shot across the face of goal, and the ball went in off the foot of the Danish keeper. It was a brilliant goal that lit up an otherwise dull match, and seemed to justify the manager’s decision to pick the Englishman over Mkhitaryan.
On the face of it, Lingard’s performance seems to have given Mourinho a selection dilemma. As one of the better players on the pitch, how is the Portuguese manager supposed to drop him for one of the better known, if less effective, names in the squad? Based on Lingard’s pre-season form, he deserves a place ahead of Memphis, Young, Mata and Rooney. He was even arguably better than Martial in the Community Shield.
However, upon closer viewing, it becomes clear that this was a performance Mourinho had been hoping for. In his second stint at Chelsea, Mourinho had provoked the ire of the fans when he sold the talented but lackadaisical Mata. Lingard looks like the opposite player. He is a hard worker and a disciplined winger who fits into the mould that Mourinho expects from his frontmen. Lingard could well become Mourinho’s next Willian or Diego Milito.
As new signings, it seems unthinkable that either Ibrahimovic or Mkhitaryan won’t find themselves in the starting line-up on the first day of the season, which means there are now two other spots open in Manchester United’s attack. Young, Memphis and Rashford have clearly been demarcated as backup players, while Mata still has an uneasy relationship with the Portuguese manager.
That means Lingard, Martial and Rooney are competing for a place in the first eleven. In theory, that really shouldn’t be a difficult question. The Frenchman could very well become the best player in the world in a few years, while the Englishman is captain and should break the club’s goal record this season. Lingard will be lucky to still be playing at the highest level in a couple of seasons.
However, in a season where Manchester United are still trying gain a foothold at the top of the table, Lingard’s particular skills could come in useful. His desire and dedication would help solidify what still looks like an unstable side, and could realistically provide the team with a foundation to build upon. As the months pass, Mourinho’s style should start to seep into the other players’ performances, but for now Lingard could provide a stopgap solution. Just as he did in the FA Cup final and the Community Shield, the odd man out could help galvanise Manchester United.