Manchester United are on a good run at the right time in the season. The fact that they are fifth in the league with one point standing between themselves and Champions League football with six games to go – is encouraging to say the least given the season they have had – often mired with big wins only followed by unexpected defeats. Only behind Leicester City in the form table, thanks to four narrow wins in the last five league games, it is safe to assume that Van Gaal has finally stumbled upon something that works – just like the 4-3-3 formation he switched to last season.
But what has he changed now? It’s very subtle – yet it’s made a telling difference in games – at points when United would normally concede a chance, a goal perhaps, they haven’t; most of it, if not all, is down to the new position that Jesse Lingard has taken to playing since the beginning of March. If you had followed these last few games, the series of 1-0 wins for United, home and away, you’d have noticed the interchange of positions between Juan Mata who now plays on the right where he’s been his most productive and Jesse Lingard who now plies his trade in the middle of the park – just behind Rashford the striker, where he’s been rather industrious or shall we say, effective?
To be honest, Lingard does not possess the elite quality one would need in the final third to create plenty of chances for the strikers to feed off nor is he a player who could get 15-20 goals a season playing behind the forward. He’s what I would call ‘a utility player’, someone who is willing to work his socks off for the team to get over the line and Man United could do with more players of his ilk, especially at this stage of the seasons where performances mean nothing when they don’t translate to maximum points. Here’s a comparison of Lingard (courtesy Squawka.com) with the rest of the players in top sides – who are as versatile as him and have played as many as or in most cases more than him this campaign to understand where he stands among these very similar footballers.
It’s clear that Lingard has not created as many chances as his fellow English stars neither has he attempted as many shots for a player that more often than not finds himself in the final third. But for someone that plays in a system that focuses on possession and controlling the game and reduced risk – he’s done well to get 4 goals and 1 assist in 14 starts, in his first full season (unlike the others here).
As defensive contribution goes, Jesse is right up there with his fellow countrymen. He’s won almost as many tackles on an average per game as Adam Lallana (who plays in a high-pressing system of Jurgen Klopp) and made more interceptions than any other on the list. Interestingly, he’s made twice the amount of tackles as his predecessor Juan Mata who, thankfully, is rather more creative on the flanks (for the obvious lack of defensive work) debunking the general sort of myth that he is best through the middle.
It also validates what Jesse Lingard does on the pitch. He is the one that rarely gets applauded after a hard fought win, the likes of which United have managed to grind out in recent weeks – that what he does is so good that he gets unnoticed similar to a certain 34-year old used to, in the middle of the park. That does not make him a lesser player by any means and with Rashford and Martial to do the business in this crunch time of the season, scoring crucial winners for fun, it’s important that this youngster, who learned his trade at the Cliff training ground in Manchester, kept doing his, for them to push for that fourth and final place to ensure Champions League participation next season.