It may boil down to score or the door for Jesse Lingard
England midfielder’s mission between now and the end of the season is to become a real star
Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard (left) will hope to continue his upward trajectory despite the competition that Alexis Sánchez (right) brings. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA Wire
The goal glut may prove Lingard’s breakthrough or come to be characterised as the hardest evidence yet he can produce only flashes of the consistent X factor a United forward must possess.
Ferguson and Moyes refused to blood Lingard in club colours before Van Gaal – after also allowing him out on loan – gave him his debut. Yet Van Gaal and Mourinho have assessed the Warrington-born player and wondered whether he can be trusted.
Lingard scored the winner in the 2016 FA Cup final against Crystal Palace, yet Van Gaal introduced him a minute before extra time. The Wembley showpiece was United’s final fixture so the manager viewed the season’s evidence and had decided Lingard was not worth a starting berth.
Lingard, after scoring in Mourinho’s first match of substance, the 2-1 Community Shield victory over Leicester City, again puzzled. He scored United’s second in the 3-2 EFL Cup triumph over Southampton last February but made 18 league starts last season under his new manager – one fewer than the previous campaign.
Last May’s Europa League final against Ajax was United’s biggest fixture since their failure to qualify for the Champions League 12 months before. Mourinho allowed Lingard only 16 minutes despite Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s injury, which pushed Rashford into the centre-forward role and freed up a berth. Instead, a supporting trio of Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini and Henrikh Mkhitaryan was preferred. Lingard was introduced when United were two ahead and cruising.
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At the time, Lingard appeared more under threat than Mkhitaryan. Yet fast-forward eight months and his brilliance has changed the picture. At the moment the 25-year-old can view himself as possessing a first-team shirt, probably at No 10, which is United’s problem position. His challenge: to convince Mourinho he should remain so.
The arrival of Alexis Sánchez should be viewed as the ideal spur. The first victim of the signing was Mkhitaryan, who moved in the opposite direction to Arsenal. There may be others as Mourinho continues to doubt those who operate behind the No 9, Romelu Lukaku.
Mourinho had constantly rotated Mkhitaryan with Anthony Martial, Rashford, Mata and Lingard, until Lingard’s November-to-January outstanding displays. In this run five of the nine strikes in 13 outings were crucial, as he became United’s go-to man.
Lingard was the match winner in the 3-1 victory at Arsenal on December 2nd, scoring the second and third goals in arguably the team’s finest display. His was also the decisive strike in the 2-1 defeat of West Brom 15 days later. Next came a Lingard double versus Burnley on Boxing Day that including a last-minute equaliser.
Seven more outings and three goals have followed, though only one in the Premier League, at Everton on New Year’s Day in what is Lingard’s finest moment in a United shirt and his best of a club career that began on loan at Leicester City in November 2012.
His full professional debut was memorable. On loan at Birmingham City the following September, Lingard scored four times in 31 minutes against Sheffield Wednesday. He spent the second half of the season at Brighton, ending 2013-14 with 10 goals and six assists in 30 appearances. These were impressive numbers for a 21-year-old hoping to progress when returning to United.
So it proved as Van Gaal gave Lingard a full debut for the club in the 2014-15 opener against Swansea City. Heartbreak followed; played as a wing-back Lingard lasted 24 minutes before suffering knee ligament damage. He was ruled out until the following February, when he began a fourth loan spell, at Derby County, scoring twice in 15 appearances.
Lingard bounced back from the injury to make 82 appearances in the next two seasons, of which 60 were starts. Yet a return of six goals (and four assists) and five goals (three assists), respectively in the past two seasons illustrates why he remains an uncertain force.
Lingard’s mission between now and the end of the season is to change his billing to star turn. There have been 12 goals and five assists as he seeks to thrive amid the competition Sánchez brings and continue the upward trajectory shown in mid-winter.
If not Lingard may fall away to mediocrity, and could be vulnerable to the same fate as Mkhitaryan.