The class of 92 will live long in the memory and I doubt football will ever see anything to that extent again. In the modern game, bringing youth players through into the first team is a rarity. However, United continue the record of having an academy player in the first team squad, stretching back over 80 years. One of the players likely to extend the run for years to come is Jesse Lingard. Lingard has battled his way into the United first team and now become an almost certain pick for Jose Mourinho. As with so many before him, Lingard appealed to his managers long before he did the fans. His undervalued energy, heart and attacking runs are not quite as attractive as Ronaldo’s goal tally or David Silva’s creative passing. What he brings to this United side and now the national team should be appreciated a hell of a lot more. This is why.
The move from academy player to the first team has not been plain sailing for the young Englishman. Lingard has had loan stints at Leicester, Birmingham, Brighton and Derby until making a breakthrough during Louis Van Gaal’s final season as manager. He may have made it earlier, had it not been for an injury early into the opening game of the previous season. In the 2015/16 season, Lingard became a crucial part of LVG’s squad. Culminating in scoring the winner in the FA cup final. Alongside Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, Lingard helped drag United to a trophy in what was a disappointing season for the club. It was his youthfulness and energy, in laboured United performances that made him a key component. The same attributes that attracted him to the incoming Jose Mourinho.
During Mourinho’s second spell at Chelsea, Willian was a big player for him. The way the Brazilian worked hard with and without the ball appealed to his manager, Lingard has been held in a similar regard. Much like Darren Fletcher and Ji Sung Park under Sir Alex Ferguson, Lingard seemed to rise to the big occasion.
By the time Mourinho reached his second season, Lingard was an even bigger part of his starting 11. In his first campaign, Mourinho used Lingard in a similar fashion to van Gaal, sparingly and normally wide right of an attacking 3. As Mourinho’s confidence in Lingard grew, so did the number of appearances. Analysing his statistics for the 3 seasons, it is no surprise to see his best return last season.
Lingard was moved centrally to utilise his attacking runs in beyond Lukaku where he excelled. The fact he was preferred to such talented players as Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Mata and Sanchez says a lot. Lingard matured and scored some big goals, but more importantly was at the heart of everything positive on the pitch. As others around him occasionally hid, Lingard would always be available and looking to impact the game.
A closer look at Lingard’s heat maps for both United and England show why he is so important to success. Using his performance against Spurs and in the World Cup semi-final against Croatia, it is clear to see the energy he brings to the game. Lingard’s selflessness is one of his biggest attributes and often goes unnoticed. Without his running, much of what is good for club and country would not happen. What is also apparent from the heatmaps, is his ability to regularly get into the opposition box. If he isn’t scoring or assisting, he will at least be causing havoc for defenders and making space for others.
Lingard’s versatility is another huge positive to club and country. Mourinho used him centrally against Spurs and out wide against Burnley, both with similar heatmaps. They show how he likes to cover all areas of the pitch. When playing wide for United, this brings into play the attacking intent of Antonio Valencia at right back. So far, Gareth Southgate has played him centrally in behind a front 2, but he could easily follow Mourinho’s lead if he wanted to shift the formation.
Lingard’s popularity is growing
Last season seemed to be his breakthrough season with United fans and Lingard’s World Cup displays seemed to have finally brought him the recognition he deserves. He has grown from almost being another failed academy player to a regular United and England player. All in the space of three seasons. His effort on the pitch should be no surprise to anyone, as it was this same effort that got him this far. His loan periods were all to Championship clubs, it would have been very easy for him to settle for that level. Instead, Lingard proved that Sir Alex was right, he was a late developer and has become the player the club thought he would become. His popularity off the pitch is also a big credit to the player and man he has become. Young football fans look up to him and want to be the next Jesse Lingard, there is not a bigger compliment than that.