Finding room for all his big-name pieces in Manchester United’s attacking jigsaw has been a recurring dilemma for Jose Mourinho during his second season at Old Trafford, and for a short while Jesse Lingard emerged as the epicentre just about holding the rest of it together.
The Red Devils academy product has endured his fair share of critics since becoming a first-team regular in 2015/16, but the most difficult period of United’s season – when Mourinho was still searching for a way of getting the best out of Paul Pogba and January signing Alexis Sanchez in the same starting XI – showed why the last two Manchester United managers and England boss Gareth Southgate have always retained their trust in the 25-year-old, even though his development has often seemed a few stages behind colleagues and contemporaries of similar age.
With goals and assists against Arsenal, Chelsea, Italy and the Netherlands, producing the goods at key moments to get United and England over the line in important games has been a key feature of Lingard’s season, validating the faith shown by Louis van Gaal, Gareth Southgate and Mourinho, not to mention Sir Alex Ferguson’s prophecy that the Three Lions man would be something of a late bloomer.
Sir Alex in 2012:
“Jesse Lingard is going to be some player.
He is 19, came through our youth system & is built like Jean Tigana was for France.
But he never got into the limelight there until he was about 24, & I think that will be the same with Lingard.”
— BullBull (@DahiiBhalla) January 1, 2018
In the last few months though, a spell which has seen United beat all their Big Six rivals, Mourinho has solved the Pogba-Sanchez conundrum by reverting to the system he’s most synonymous with, leaving Lingard as the unfortunate casualty. As 4-2-3-1 has shifted to 4-3-3, Pogba has become the most offensive element of the midfield, Sanchez has beat away competition to make the left wing berth his own and Lingard has found himself pushed out to the right-hand side.
Van Gaal once remarked that Lingard lacks the pace to be an out-and-out wide man, and that’s really shown in his performances on the right this season compared to when he’s been utilised as a central attacking midfielder. His averages for shots, key passes and dribbles per game have all been lower, while the number of unsuccessful touches has increased. Perhaps most significantly, his strike rate centrally is better than one-in-three; out wide, he’s scored just one in seven.
The key statistic for Mourinho though is the win rate, United failing to win during just one of Lingard’s seven right wing outings this season. Tellingly, Mourinho used 4-3-3 in five of those games, the only exception being the 4-2-3-1 used in the 4-1 demolition of Carabao Cup opponents Burton, and that once again highlights the delicate balancing act the Old Trafford gaffer has been forced to undertake this season – which has his former world-record signing as the painfully temperamental pivot point.
Pivot being a fitting metaphor, because Pogba has so desperately struggled in a deep midfield two this season, most memorably finding himself hauled off by Mourinho in the 2-0 defeat to Tottenham at Wembley after being out-fought and out-classed by Mousa Dembele. Pogba’s performances there have proved United can’t afford the Frenchman and a No.10 in the same midfield, and although Lingard was the considerably better performer while United were still shaping up in a 4-2-3-1, he’s become the more expendable entity.
Perhaps that’s because Pogba commands such power at United as their record signing and one of their highest earners, compared to an academy product that cost the club nothing in transfer fees and takes home a comparatively modest £100k per-week. Perhaps that’s because Mourinho has made it almost a personal mission to prove his huge investment in Pogba was indeed money well spent. Perhaps that’s because, more justifiably, Pogba is naturally the more gifted talent, with much greater experience from his spells with Juventus and France.
Whatever the ultimate motivation though, it’s clear Pogba and Lingard can’t coexist in the same midfield, and due to the reasons detailed above that’s a much bigger problem for the latter than the former. But it’s clear Mourinho is incredibly fond of the England man; he could be playing Juan Mata, Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford there, three players arguably more naturally equipped for the right wing berth, yet has trusted Lingard instead, even in spite of a considerable downturn in form.
That proves Lingard can still have a role to play at Old Trafford, but it also leaves him at something of a crossroads; if he wishes to be a No.10, someone who can rival Dele Alli for that role within the England squad, his future most likely lays with another team that can afford to play him there. If he wishes to stay with his boyhood club while maintaining the effectiveness he showed earlier in the season, he needs to find a way of performing in the same starting XI as Pogba and Sanchez by modifying his game.
It’s incredibly difficult to develop the defender-beating speed van Gaal once accused Lingard of lacking, especially at the age of 25. But the changing tactical trends of the Premier League throw up an interesting solution.
The most successful and entertaining teams in English football this season, Premier League winners Manchester City and Champions League finalists Liverpool, have a pair of ‘false No.8s’ – as Pep Guardiola describes them – at their beating hearts; technically gifted and dynamic players who would have been traditionally Pidgeon-holed as No.10s breaking through from the engine room to become part of the attack.
To an extent, Pogba’s fulfilling that role for United already, and Lingard has the requisites for it as well. He’s got fantastic energy and counter-attacking ability, and that lack of scintillating pace has forced him to become a more disciplined attacking midfielder than most, so moving slightly deeper into midfield wouldn’t automatically make him a defensive liability in the same way as Mata, for example.
The ultimate question, however, is how much faith Mourinho has in that Guardiola-and-Jurgen-Klopp-inspired idea. Those kinds of midfields have quickly moved to the forefront of English football, but it would represent a significant sea change from Mourinho to deploy two offensive-minded midfielders in the same engine room, even if Nemanja Matic is there to sweep up behind.
As things stand though, it’s hard to see where else Lingard really fits into this United team while Pogba is utilised in his most effective capacity. Mourinho’s clearly given up on the idea on Pogba playing behind a No.10, and Lingard clearly isn’t the dynamic and potent right winger a club of United’s calibre desperately need to challenge City next season. Once again, perhaps through no genuine thought of his own, Mourinho finds himself blocking the path of a promising academy product for the sake of a big-money signing.
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