Beneath all the ‘J-Lingz’ social media presence and the piper goal celebrations is a hard-working Jesse Lingard. The Warrington-born forward has had to be patient for his chance at Old Trafford. Since he shared an FA Youth Cup-winning team with the likes of Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison, he has bade his time. After a deserved place in Gareth Southgate’s rejuvenated World Cup squad in Russia, his career is finally on track.
But is hard work alone enough? What else is there to his game that merits a place in Jose Mourinho’s long-term plans? When it comes to Manchester United’s attacking options, all the focus has been on Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Lingard has a difficult choice: either continue as the uncomplaining squad player, or develop into a new player. The answer may lie in his international performances.
Midfielder or forward?
Lingard’s stall has been set out as a rapid impact player at United, and as a result, he is rarely given a full 90 minutes. In fact, this season so far he has completed a full match just once, against Spurs in August. In contrast, he played every minute of four of the five England World Cup matches he started. That included playing extra time against Colombia and Croatia.
The interesting difference is not just in the number of minutes, but his positioning on the pitch. At club level, he has been rather lazily shoehorned into a roaming forward role, or out wide in attack. This summer in Russia for England, however, he played as a central midfielder. Coincidentally, one key issue for this struggling Manchester United season has been the sluggish lethargy in the middle.
Lessons from Lingard’s World Cup performances
Take a look at his pass maps against Sweden and Colombia. Although both matches saw him on the pitch for 120 minutes, he only made 47 and 44 respectively. For a central midfielder, in general, this is relatively low, but it befits his specific role. In front of him in both games was a two-man striker partnership, with width coming from the fullbacks. This meant that his role was almost more important off the ball than on it.
His energy and stamina was not in question as he covered huge amounts of ground. Since there was less emphasis on him to create openings through sheer pace or trickery, he could conserve his energy to harry opponents and offer a passing option or draw a marker away from other areas.
Lessons Manchester United could learn
A United midfield with Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera or Marouane Fellaini is incredibly one-dimensional. While Herrera will pressure anyone who approaches the defensive third, he rigidly sticks to his dictated position. Lingard, however, has the ability to carry the ball forwards and offer quality further up the pitch.
Comparing the two pass maps, we can see that at least two-thirds of Lingard’s passes were in the opposition half. The Colombia match was a far more intense match given their physicality and energetic style. This didn’t prevent Lingard from making himself available in more advanced areas of the pitch.
Interestingly, his passes were predominantly in wider areas and the half-spaces. Given that two of United’s standout performers this season have been Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw, both of whom play almost exclusively out on the flanks, Lingard’s availability in link-up play in those areas could be a critical factor in getting the most out of them.
Mourinho loves a versatile hard worker, and Lingard is certainly that. Even if the Portuguese uses him predominantly as a midfielder, he will understandably still sometimes move him forward into more advanced positions. Against Manchester City, for example, he was placed out on the right with Marcus Rashford through the middle. In almost an hour, he took just 27 touches of which four were in the final third. His overall total was the fewest of all starters, including goalkeeper David De Gea. He made 19 passes, with only the isolated Rashford made fewer.
The front three that day of Martial, Rashford and Lingard was a thinly-veiled plan to use pure pace. That alone, however, is not remotely enough to threaten top sides. The lack of cohesion, as demonstrated by Lingard and Rashford’s detachment from play, must be addressed. Of Rashford’s 29 touches, none were in the penalty area and just 11 were more advanced than the centre circle.
Just lumping Lingard out wide without a coherent strategy then is pointless. A more effective structure for United would surely involve connecting the midfield and attack more efficiently. To this end, Lingard’s best position would seem to be in midfield. The apparent complete lack of faith in Fred leaves the ₤50 million Brazilian out in the cold. It would even fit into Mourinho’s hubris somewhat to show that he has to reinvent a traditional forward to solve a midfield problem, rather than use the board-approved signings he openly dislikes.