Twelve months ago, the thought of Jesse Lingard making United’s starting XI would have filled me with an irrational hatred, to the point where I would spend 90 minutes bemoaning every failed dribble and misplaced pass. Now, he has to be, without question, one of the first names on the team sheet, and I’m happy to admit I was wrong.
I couldn’t even tell you what it was that irritated me so much about him.
He’s an honest player, who always gives his all. I just felt that wasn’t enough. We should be aiming much higher, I thought; he wasn’t the star player the team needed to drag us out of mediocrity. Yes, he scored a goal that won us the FA cup final, but then so did Lee Martin.
The tipping point was probably the video on the coach away at West Ham, when the windows were shattered by home fans pelting the team coach with rocks. There on the floor was Lingard, acting like a schoolboy on a class trip to Chester Zoo, posting live on his Snapchat. Added to that were the celebrations, the social media content; it was all just a bit cringe. But then I thought back to the days of Lee Sharpe, Paul Ince and Ryan Giggs: I used to lap that stuff up, so maybe it’s a generation thing.
He gives the team movement
This season, as the manager rightly pointed out, Lingard has stepped up a gear or two. Playing in a free role behind the striker, he gives the team something it severely lacks, which is movement. Even when he is without the ball, he is always on the move, creating space for others or making himself available for the pass. If you factor in his goals, 8 in his last 10 appearances, then you have a truly great player. He currently has a better goals and assists return this season than Sadio Mane, De Bruyne and Eriksen.
Some of the goals he has scored have been world class. As the old adages goes: if they had been scored by Messi or Neymar, they’d have been raved about. The variety of goals, too, make him a special player: the quick instinctive finish against Arsenal after the cute reverse pass from Martial; the mazy dribble from his own half against Watford; the two stunning long-range goals against Everton; and most recently, the goal against Derby in the FA cup.
The key now is consistency
The true test now for Lingard is to produce these type of displays consistently, not just for the remainder of this season, but into next season, and the one after that. I’m not for one minute saying he is better than De Bruyne, Eriksen or Ozil; players who have done this season after season, for club and country. But the bar has now been set. Sir Alex Ferguson always said he would be a late developer, and the club needed to be patient with him. As is usually the case, the great man appears to have been proven right. Everyone has seen the pictures of Jesse as a young boy at the training ground with Nani and Ronaldo. It’s a fantastic story to see a player who has grown up and supported the club since a boy, make the break into the first team.
So Jesse “Messi” Lingard, I’m sorry. I, like many other United fans, were wrong…I’ll just close my eyes during the goal celebrations.