The story of Jesse Lingard, a Warrington-born boyhood Manchester United fan going from being the perennial scapegoat that symbolised United’s seeming mediocrity to the match-winning hero that the supporters did not quite deserve – is a remarkable one. What the now 24-year old has experienced in the last few weeks is an occupational evolution – paraphrasing Mourinho’s words – and for humans that may not have had a Pokemon experience in their lives, that may sound a bit weird. But it cannot be any more apparent that he has had one and the stone has indeed – worked its wonders.
To even mention Lingard in a list that contains the traditional ‘playmakers’ such as Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Mesut Ozil and former Liverpool playmaker Phillipe Coutinho was a crime that you did not want to commit. But such has been his form that I am compelled to look at the numbers and evaluate his effectiveness and thereby impact he has had in Manchester United winning games of football.
What we see in the above graphic does in a way illustrate why Jesse Lingard may never be universally appreciated for what he is – or understood, for want of a better word.
Besides the number of goals scored, Lingard is not quite comparable with the rest in every other metric. He does not create as many chances as the others, neither does he get to orchestrate the build-up as much as the others do for their respective sides. For all the efficiency he has shown in front of goal – scoring 8 in his last 10 appearances (9 starts) in all competitions, averaging roughly a goal in every 3 attempts in the process, Lingard does not offer much else. Or at least, that has always been the general consensus.
Jesse Lingard is not compelling to watch. He does not make players around him do better – in a way truly world-class players do. But he, unlike any other in that Manchester United squad, is flexible and adaptable enough to mould himself to suit a style of play and contribute to the system so as to validate it; enhance even.
Often deployed in the right or left where he could influence the game by creating space for the centre-forward to run into, in addition to releasing the main goalscorer himself, Lingard’s direct say on the game was usually limited, except in the cup finals at Wembley, of course.
Yet whenever he featured, he was integral to the way the team functioned, under Mourinho in particular as United morphed into a counter-attacking team that did not need or even want, for that matter, more time on the ball. It is interesting to note that United’s average possession stands at just 51% for 2017/18 so far – quite a slide from 55% in the last two seasons and 57% in the campaign before.
What Lingard is, however, really good at, is running with the football and knowing when to take a gamble. And that is hard to coach. For all the flak he gets, the 24-year old never hides from taking the responsibility. It cannot be a coincidence that a lion’s share of his goals would not be out-of-place in a carefully curated highlights reel. Likewise, understanding the way Lingard operates is essential to appreciate what he does.
Unlike the previous graphic, this is one where Lingard does not seem out of place at. Like Raheem Sterling of Manchester City or a more experienced Pedro at Chelsea, Lingard’s skillset is different to what used to be the norm for central attacking midfielders, hence the hesitation. Lingard, like others in this group – is the modern number ten with an abundance of persistence and purpose – for persistence is a talent too.
It would seem that Mourinho has realised this as Sir Alex Ferguson did long before the Portuguese – having seen the 24-year old in his formative years. And it’s time the supporters did too.