Eleventh minute at the Emirates Stadium. Shkodran Mustafi has the ball just outside his box for Arsenal. He thinks he has plenty of time in possession. What he doesn’t realise is the presence of Jesse Lingard, who is about to press him into losing the ball to Romelu Lukaku.
One pass, a incisive diagonal run and a delicate reverse flick from Anthony Martial later, Lingard is through on goal, staring down Petr Cech and ready to apply the finishing touches on a delightful Manchester United move and put the Reds two goals to the good against the Gunners. Under pressure from Nacho Monreal, he takes a moment to steady himself before sidefooting the ball past Cech. It’s inch-perfect, coming off the right-hand post and into the back of the net. Cue the Milly Rock in front of the bouncing United travelling support.
Those are the sort of moments that cement Lingard’s place in the Manchester United squad as a whole and this week has certainly been one to remember for the man from Warrington. After being recalled into the side for the midweek fixture against Watford, the 24-year-old justified his selection with a sterling performance by setting up Ashley Young’s opener, kickstarting Anthony Martial’s goal with some fantastic endeavour and sealing the game with a brilliant individual effort, just as the Reds looked to be on the rocks after conceding two in the space of a couple of minutes.
That performance was repeated against Arsenal, in a game that will go down in the history books as a Premier League classic. Not only did Lingard score United’s second in the fantastic move that was described earlier, he went on to notch the third goal when the Reds were once again in a similar situation to their midweek fixture, as Arsenal knocked on the door having got back into the game via Alexandre Lacazette’s goal.
Once again, Lingard was at the heart of everything good, kickstarting the move and laying off the ball to Paul Pogba on the right-wing before reaping the benefits and tapping the ball home from point-blank range after Pogba had elegantly danced around fellow Frenchman Laurent Koscielny with brilliant close control and strength and squared the ball into the six-yard area.
Rio Ferdinand described Lingard’s game perfectly during BT Sport’s post-match coverage yesterday:
He’s not what you see nowadays. People want to see stepovers, glitz and glamour. This kid’s not about that. This kid’s about running, identifying where the space is to hurt the opposition and he does it as good as anyone in the game.
He’s not what kids go on Instagram to see at the moment, because they don’t appreciate what he does for a team: runs on the ball, without it. He’s a manager’s dream, because he can defend as well in terms of energy, but when they [United] get the ball he comes alive.
And Ferdinand’s comment about people wanting to see glitz and glamour is the perfect phrase to sum up Lingard’s reputation amongst certain sections of the United fanbase. All they see is a player that isn’t flashy on the ball and as a result, moan on social media when the homegrown academy product is included in the first eleven.
The truth of the matter is, Lingard isn’t the best of the best. He’s certainly a level lower than that. But what he brings is a different option for José Mourinho to deploy, especially in the games where United will need to sit deep and play on the break. In fact, the Reds have looked much better this season in attack when Lingard’s been on the pitch.
His off-the-ball movement is sorely under-appreciated by many and poses all sorts of problems for opposition defences, which also gives space for the likes of Pogba, Martial and Lukaku to do their thing as well. Along with the pace he has, that makes for a deadly combination when United break up the pitch. Yes, that doesn’t make him an automatic starter week after week, but that alone justifies his presence as a squad player.
Yet there are United fans with some ridiculous expectations for anyone that wears the red shirt. They expect every player (even if they’re on the bench every single week) to be world class. If they don’t fit the bill, they should be sold to make way for said world class players. I’ve got news for those United fans: this isn’t FIFA. You can’t go out in the transfer market, buy seven or eight world class players, then proceed to stick them on the bench thinking they won’t have a whinge if you don’t play them enough.
If you do think like that, you’re forgetting the ethos of a trademark Manchester United squad. While there are eight or nine world class players you can constantly depend on to deliver the goods week in, week out, you also need several squad players that can do a job when called upon in a certain situation.
You’re forgetting the contributions of Nicky Butt, Wes Brown and John O’Shea, who all never consistently held down a place in the United starting eleven except when those above them in the pecking order got injured. Brown especially, given that he started most of the 2007-08 season at right-back when Gary Neville was injured and ending up assisting United’s only goal in the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow.
Twitter: Lingard’s stats in the 3-4-1-2:
254 mins played
42 mins per goal / assist
Found his role. #MUFC https://t.co/rh0Dt7FA4G (@StatmanDave)
You’re forgetting the contributions of one Park Ji-Sung, who Sir Alex Ferguson would constantly call upon in the biggest of big games. Time and time again, the Korean midfielder would prove his worth in those important situations, coming up with some vital goals against the likes of AC Milan, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. His energy, work-rate and ability to man-mark players out of entire games were a key reason why United were so successful in the latter stages of Sir Alex’s reign at Old Trafford.
Most of all, you’re forgetting the contributions of squad players to the club’s biggest triumph: the 1999 Champions League final. With Roy Keane and Paul Scholes suspended for the big occasion against Bayern Munich, Butt and Jesper Blomqvist started in the centre of the park. And with United losing in injury-time, it was substitutes Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that came up with the goals that bookended United’s greatest night.
Lingard stands up to the mantle of a Manchester United squad player well. This is a player that has stood up on the big occasion. He scored the winning goal in an FA Cup final the season prior to last and only earlier this season did he score in a EFL Cup final that United won. If scoring at Wembley isn’t the mark of a good squad player, I don’t know what is.
Lingard may not be the best of the best, but he is just the sort of player you need when you are challenging for trophies on all four fronts. José Mourinho knows that, and it is his opinion that is most important.