Jesse Lingard’s sudden importance to England’s World Cup hopes, which were perfectly encapsulated by a restlessly offensive performance in the first half of Sunday’s 6-1 win over Panama, hasn’t emerged through some miraculous act of good fortune.
Yes, Gareth Southgate’s roaming No.8 role gets maximum value out of a player who has never quite excelled as a No.10, a winger or a central midfielder, exploiting the incredible energy he possesses to act as part of both the engine room and the forward line, but Lingard’s drastic rise in estimations over months leading into Russia 2018, and his capacity to impress in more central positions, has been meticulously predicted for some time.
It’s exactly why, when Manchester United fans and neutrals were left repeatedly underwhelmed by the 14-cap international’s early club appearances, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho always found room for him in their plans. LVG, Mourinho, Southgate and even Sir Alex Ferguson all saw something they liked in Lingard; only now though, is it truly translating across to the naked eye, to the average supporter who doesn’t get the benefit of witnessing the versatile midfielder’s daily progress on the training pitch.
Perhaps the most well-known prophecy circulated midway through last season, when Lingard’s 2017/18 campaign suddenly exploded to life with a run of seven goals in nine Premier League appearances. Previously, Lingard had done enough to earn just one Premier League start, although his outings in the League Cup – particularly a brace-bagging performance to secure a 2-0 win over Swansea City – suggested that kind of eruption was just around the corner.
How far will England get in Russia? Tell us now and win any World Cup shirt of your choice.
After an irresistible performance at Goodison Park on New Year’s Day, a variety of publications picked up on Ferguson’s prediction from five years prior, labelling Lingard as a late bloomer whose ascendance wouldn’t truly take place until the age of 24. Eerily, Lingard celebrated his 25th Birthday midway through that run of seven in nine.
But Ferguson, whose verdict on any player is difficult to dispute anyway, was by no means alone in anticipating an Indian summer of development, and similar comments from Southgate back in 2014 give an insight into why Lingard is so trusted by a Three Lions manager who has completely capsized the mentality and philosophical approach of this England team, the Warrington-born starlet serving at this World Cup as it’s relentless beating heart.
A year after expressing the need to give Lingard time to develop and issuing him a similar age stamp of 23, the midfielder repaid Southgate’s faith by coming off the bench to score a delicious strike that sealed a European Championship win for the now-England gaffer’s U21 side.
The stunning strike unearthed an underlying trait, one which showed itself yet again on Sunday, that has no doubt helped managers maintain their trust in Lingard during the more difficult moments of his career. While his best position and his ultimate level of ability has always been open to interpretation, at least in public quarters, Lingard’s ability to rise to the occasion has remained undeniable.
In addition to ensuring Southgate’s U21s left the 2015 European Championship with a win to their name, he’s scored in an FA Cup final for van Gaal, a Community Shield final and League Cup final for Mourinho and even in a Champonship Playoff semi-final for Oscar Garcia’s Brighton.
He’s now played an intrinsic part in England’s most positive World Cup performance for a generation – driving into the penalty box to win Harry Kane’s first penalty, making it 2-0, before surging on from midfield shortly after, this time adding to his collection of goals that combine importance with elegance by curling the ball effortlessly beyond Panama’s rooted goalkeeper.
For a country that has so often become paralysed by the weight of expectation, and for a manager who experienced that himself so painfully from the penalty spot at Euro 96, any player who seems to embrace the biggest of psychological tests automatically becomes an invaluable asset.
That perhaps explains why Southgate was so willingly prepared to hand Lingard his England debut against Malta back in 2016, well over a year before that run of goals for United truly justified the jump up to the international stage.
But the youngster’s emergence as essentially an offensive-minded central midfielder owes more to the manager who gave him his Red Devils debut than the England boss – van Gaal, perhaps the manager who boasts the biggest impact on Lingard’s career.
While he earned an early fan in Ferguson and no attention at all from David Moyes, Lingard instantly won over the Dutchman, starting his first ever Premier League game as Old Trafford boss only to be struck down by injury almost instantly, lasting a mere 24 minutes.
Perhaps if that knee complaint hadn’t kept Lingard out for the next four months, resulting in him ending the season on loan back in the Championship, the exceptional intelligence and ability so many managers have anticipated to surface would have done so much sooner, and Lingard wouldn’t have entered this World Cup surrounded by question marks.
There were plenty who viewed Ruben Loftus-Cheek, another favourite of Southgate’s from the U21s scene, as the more qualified partner for Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli.
The season after, van Gaal would field Lingard in 40 games across all competitions, including the FA Cup final, and along the way came a realisation that has resulted in the Lingard we now see representing England, the lynchpin in Southgate’s quirky 3-1-4-2 setup that no side at the World Cup has managed to comfortably handle so far. Whereas Lingard was utilised as a winger in the Championship, van Gaal believed he was at his most effective in a more central role.
He’s never quite convinced as an out-and-out No.10, at least not for a club of United’s level, but Southgate’s subtle reinterpretation has really shown what Lingard can do – how he can drive on from midfield, how he can cover such vast areas to join the forward line and pressure the opposition, how he can make runs into the channels or even beyond the striker, how he can score unstoppable goals from range when he finds a few yards of space outside the box.
If we were talking about so many other players within the England team, such a journey wouldn’t perhaps seem so significant – very few England players have entered the tournament with a glistening CV.
But amid the backdrop of the doubts that have continuously circulated around Lingard for much of his senior career because he has always seemed a few stages of development behind contemporaries of similar age, it’s difficult not to take notice of the way in which three prophecies from three different managers have all come together at the perfect time for the Three Lions.
In many ways – in terms of industriousness, mobility and flair – Lingard’s come to embody the identity of Southgate’s young and exciting England cohort.