Jesse Lingard: Manchester United’s unsung hero
He may not grab the headlines every week but Jesse Lingard has been an integral part of United's squad in the last two years
With the transfer of Paul Pogba to Manchester United for a then record fee, the transfer market did change. Fast forward to the 2017 summer transfer window that record fee was broken not once but twice by PSG for Neymar Jr and Kylian Mbappe.
In this modern age of football, there are two kinds of players; one, the kind that win you matches single-handedly, players that shine brighter than the other 21 on the pitch, the so-called big guns. Clubs shell out huge amounts of money to get their signature, to make a team around them.
Now, the second kind, the players that work hard for the team, those who put in 100% effort week in and week out and don't make a huge deal out of it. You don't see their names on the headlines, you don't see them take the spotlight, you don't hear the media talk about them and yet, you know that your team would be incomplete without them because they put their team before anything and everything. One such player who has gone unnoticed in recent times is Manchester United's Jesse Lingard.
The Sir Alex Ferguso era
Born in Warrington, Cheshire, Lingard joined United's Academy at the age of Seven. He did not have it easy at Old Trafford just like any other teenager with competition for places on the team, he had to work his way up in a Manchester United youth team which consisted of the likes of Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Will Keane. They were considered as a special bunch of players, a bunch which was destined for greatness.
Success soon followed as Tom Thorpe led Manchester United to their first FA Youth Cup victory in almost a decade when his side beat Sheffield United 6-3 on aggregate. With the victory, many thought the youth players would get a shot under Sir Alex Ferguson, with the likes of Pogba and Tunnicliffe getting promoted to the first team it was only a question of when Fergie would give Lingard the nod but he had to wait not days not weeks but months. Meanwhile, his beloved teammate Pogba left for Juventus.
He could have done the same but he did not because he had only one goal and that was to play for Manchester United. He kept putting in good performances for the youth team waiting for his chance and on the 30th of November 2011, he was named in a matchday squad for the first time ever in a League Cup match against Crystal Palace.
United went on to lose the match and Lingard was an unused substitute. Yes, it was not going to come easy. He had one more senior team call-up against Newcastle before the end of the season but went unused again. The following season Lingard was loaned out to Leicester City where he made five appearances without scoring any goals.
Post Sir Alex's departure
There is a long list of United Academy graduates who went on to do great things for the club but there is an even longer list of Academy graduates who have failed to make an impact at the top level. Fans feared that Lingard would fall under the later. With Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement, new manager David Moyes decided to take Lingard on the pre-season tour. This was the turning point in his career as he scored 4 goals in 4 appearances finishing as top scorer.
There was a buzz around the lad again. He was not a quitter. After scoring his first goal he said, " I believe in myself but I have to start believing in myself more." However, David Moyes preferred to keep Adnan Januzaj and felt Lingard was surplus to requirements and send him out on loan to Birmingham and then Brighton where he made a combined 29 appearances scoring nine times. 2013-14 was a disappointing season for the Red Devils which lead to David Moyes getting sacked. Ryan Giggs took charge as caretaker manager and named the likes of James Wilson and Tom Lawrence in his lineup which would've given Lingard some hope.
Out went David Moyes and in came Louis van Gaal and a bunch of new signings. United were spending big. They needed to start competing for the title again. Van Gaal's teams always had a fine mix of youth and experience and he tried to do the same at Manchester United. He named the likes of Lingard, James, Blackett for the preseason tour and it paid dividends. United went on to go unbeaten with victories over Real Madrid, Roma, and Liverpool. Lingard came on and scored against Liverpool and things were looking bright, so bright that van Gaal gave Lingard the green light to start against Swansea on the opening day of the Premier League.
It was not a memorable debut for Lingard as he came off injured after just 24 minutes. With the arrival of Angel Di Maria, Lingard fell out of favour once again. He finished the season on loan at Derby scoring twice in 14 appearances. In the 2015-16 season, a series of first-team squad injuries forced van Gaal to experiment with his lineup. This proved to be crucial for Lingard as he grabbed his opportunity with both hands.
The likes of Tyler Blackett, Borthwick-Jackson, Varela started playing in the main eleven more often than not and so did Lingard. He scored his first senior goal for Manchester United in a 2-0 win at home against West Brom. With top-notch performances week in and week out, Lingard repaid the faith van Gaal had on him.
Against Chelsea, Lingard latched onto a ball which ricocheted off Wayne Rooney and blasted it into the top corner to give them the lead. United's season was falling apart due to injuries and in came 18-year-old Marcus Rashford. Rashford, Martial, and Lingard formed a formidable partnership towards the end of the season. Lingard's finest moment of the season came at Wembley.
Ten men, United were staring at the jaws of defeat when Lingard fired a volley into the top corner helping them win their first piece of silverware post the Ferguson era. Mr.Wembley was born.
Mourinho came in and United broke the bank to bring in some proven players. Mourinho had a reputation for not trusting the younger players enough. The likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Mohamed Salah and Romelu Lukaku being examples. Mourinho's way of doing things was different. He expected a lot from his players. He expected his forwards to defend, fall back. Martial, Lingard, Rashford were all in the firing line.
"Will they be sold? Will they play regularly? Rashford and Martial yes but what about Lingard?" were questions United supporters asked each other. These questions were answered when United played Leicester in the Community Shield match. Lingard took control of the ball in the middle of the park, beat almost half of the Leicester City team and scored. Mr.Wembley was back at it.
Lingard's first season with Mourinho saw him evolve as a player he was no longer the inconsistent Jesse Lingard who popped up now and then disappeared, he became a solid part of the team helping out in whatever way he can. Whether it was to see out games, to get back into games after going down, he did it with a smile on his face and with a willingness to work hard.
He tracked back, closed down players and what not. Even though he had periods of bad form. He had the heart of a true red devil, he never gave up. Lingard returned to his favourite hunting ground this time for the League Cup final against Southampton and as fate would have it he scored again coolly slotting home a pass from Marcus Rojo from the edge of the box. United went on to win the League Cup and the Europa League as well and yes, Jesse did play his part.
With United playing catch up in the league and Mkhitaryan's poor form in the last few months, the onus is on Lingard to come good. Everytime Jose has turned to Lingard this season, he has put in a shift. Be it the double he scored against Swansea in the League Cup or the beautiful solo goal he scored against Watford, Lingard has started to have a say in every match he plays.
He already has six goals and four assists to his name this season which is more than what he managed the whole of last season. The double he scored against Arsenal shows what kind of a player he has become. He is calm on the ball, his finishing has improved and he does not give the ball away cheaply anymore. He is the sort of player any manager would love to have on his side.
I am pretty sure Gareth Southgate would be keeping a close eye on him as he tries to pick his squad for Russia-2018.They say God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers and it is safe to say that Lingard has emerged victorious in his battle. However a key test awaits the young Englishman this weekend as Manchester United face the City juggernaut, will he have a say this weekend as well? We will have to wait to find out.