Part of what makes football such an emotional and exhausting sport is opinions. Every fan has loads to say after a result, be it good or bad – some do it via the medium of Twitter or YouTube while a few privileged others get paid to do it in suits on national television. Like every group of supporters, the Manchester United fan-base is a cesspool of opinions that most often come across as very divisive and conflicting – particularly about some of the players that represent them on the pitch.
Jesse Lingard is certainly one of these select few who is often the subject of either abject criticism or extravagant praise whenever he is involved. A middle ground has never really existed. The Warrington-born player has been plying his trade at United, his boyhood club, since the age of 8 – Jesse Lingard is living the dream in many ways, having come through the ranks playing an important role in the successful FA Youth Cup winning team of 2011 scoring in the final against Sheffield United, the last time the Red Devils won that accolade.
But for about four years his footballing career at United was caught in between a multitude of loan spells in the lower leagues following promising pre-season outings. It’s no surprise that he has always been deemed as a late bloomer, even by Sir Alex who once claimed to see a player emerging in the youth setup that would prove to be an integral part of the side from the age of 22 or so – when he actually, talked about Jesse Lingard.
The Scot was right as he has been on so many occasions when it comes to his eye for a talent. Under Louis van Gaal, Lingard enjoyed his breakthrough season in 2015-16 when he made 47 appearances (37 starts) across all competitions scoring or assisting 13 goals, which is an incredible return for a player who had to come back both physically and mentally after the long-term injury lay-off he had to endure in the preceding campaign. Not to forget, his contribution that guided the Red Devils to a joint record FA Cup victory (4 goals and 2 assists), including the memorable extra time winner in the final – Lingard wrote his name in the history books of Manchester United.
Lingard, very much like the response he generates, is an enigma of a footballer. His whole career at Man United so far was summed up in his most recent appearance at the Hawthorns in the impressive 2-0 win – United’s 3rd on the bounce in the Premier League. There he was involved in the thick of the opening goal which showed his ability to not just outrun a full-back but also out-think one when he deftly turned and sped past Nyom and executed a perfectly timed half-volleyed cross setting up Zlatan Ibrahimovic probably his easiest goal in his short United career so far.
Minutes later he was involved in another intricate move when he drifted from the right in between the lines to present Paul Pogba a passing route, then found Wayne Rooney whose attempt to score that magical 249th goal was only denied by the brilliance of Ben Foster. He was a constant source of energy and intelligent mobility on Saturday and at times the only one, in a front six that had three players over the age of 30. But seconds before that half-time whistle was blown he found himself with the ball bouncing in front of him about 10 yards from the keeper begging to be smashed into the roof of the net. But Lingard ended up doing exactly what he was criticised for ever since his senior debut for Manchester United. He showed his inability again to score the “easy” goals, if you like.
It’s not the first time he has failed to put away a simple chance in a crucial period that would kill a game off. Another glaring miss that stands out is his failure from a similar range in the 3-3 draw at St. James’ Park in January 2016, a fixture that United should have comfortably won. There’s nothing more unproductive in football than looking back on past seasons but had Lingard scored his second goal that day, United could have now been playing in the Champions League looking forward to a draw against the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid in the last 16.
But having said that, there’s still a long way to go in Lingard’s career – as he is not one to be judged by his age – he may be 23 but on Saturday, he only made his 63rd senior team appearance in about four and a half seasons with the club. The manager is seemingly willing to give this academy product the time and space to develop and add more goals to his game and so should the fans too and put this hyperbole concerning him to a temporary rest.