AFTER scoring for England against Andorra at Wembley on 5 September, Jesse Lingard peeled away from the goalmouth and ran toward the corner flag, his hands entwined in his trademark “JL” celebration, before leaping into the air, spinning 180 degrees and planting his feet wide as he landed – mimicking the instantly recognisable post-goal pose of his newest Manchester United team-mate, Cristiano Ronaldo.
But it remains to be seen just how much on-pitch action Lingard will see alongside United’s returning No.7. And, indeed, how much Ronaldo’s switch from Juventus to Old Trafford will limit the England attacker’s first-team opportunities. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner is expected to lead the line as a No.9 in his second spell with United, not a position Lingard aspires to occupy, but the presence of the Portuguese will surely mean less central time for Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and, when fit again after shoulder surgery, Marcus Rashford, who will instead compete for minutes in the wide spaces in which Lingard hopes to linger.
With just four minutes of Premier League playing time under his belt so far this season, and having reportedly rejected the club’s offer of a new deal in light of his current contract being set to expire next summer, these are beginning to feel like the end days of Lingard’s United career, an association which stretches back more than two decades to when he was just eight years old.
But should United have more use for a player as versatile, dynamic and disciplined as the 31-cap England man?
Jesse Lingard doing Cristiano Ronaldo’s celebration [@itvfootball]
— United Zone (@ManUnitedZone_) September 5, 2021
Some commendable work in the transfer market and the continued development of a handful of in-house stars has meant competition for places is stiff within Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad – with, perhaps, the exception of United’s one glaring weakness, the defensive-midfield role. Lingard’s ability to play on either flank or centrally as a No.10 aids his chances of selection, but even across those positions he finds himself behind the aforementioned trio plus Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba in the pecking order.
Yet Lingard offers valuable attributes the others can’t boast. He is admittedly limited as a creator compared to Fernandes and Pogba and lacks the dribbling ability of Sancho, Rashford and Greenwood. But he is a scoring threat when fielded centrally – evidenced by his haul of nine goals in 16 appearances on loan with West Ham in the second half of last season – without needing to be as ball-dominant as Fernandes.
He is also the most adept presser among United’s forward options – he has, in the past, been devastatingly effective at disrupting opponents’ rhythm by hassling their deep-lying playmaker. He links play neatly and effectively in tight spaces and is a dynamic quick-thinker well-suited to the kind of counter-attacking system Solskjaer often deploys.
“I think Jesse’s first priority is to get into our team,” Solskjaer said when, in late August, he was asked about his plans for Lingard this season. “I think whenever your employer is Man United, I think that’s your first priority and always is.
“I think we, together, can have great moments. Of course, as a manager, with players in a squad like I’ve got now, it’s difficult. It’s difficult to say that this weekend you’re not playing.
“Of course, I have to leave players out, never mind from the starting XI but from the squad. But they all have to remember and know they’re going to have to play a part if we’re going to be successful.
“Jesse is back to his fitness, he played really well in the behind-closed-doors game [against Burnley] on Tuesday and he’s come back bubbly and in good shape. He’s got a big part to play.”
Jesse Lingard Today
1x Man Of The Match (For Me)
JLingz Is Officially Back pic.twitter.com/6hC2aCClZI
— JChinkZ (@UtdJChinkZ9) September 5, 2021
Judging by the fact Lingard has rejected United’s offer of a new contract, it seems he isn’t entirely convinced. It is believed that, having gotten a taste of being back among the England fold off the back of his fine West Ham form last term, he wants to be certain of being given enough first-team opportunities at club level to keep himself in Gareth Southgate’s plans before deciding where his future lies.
United’s squad is top heavy and there is little argument for Lingard to be considered a sure-fire starter in any of his favoured positions when everyone is fit.
But he has more worth than he is currently being credited with, either as someone who can impact matches from the bench or who can execute a bespoke tactical plan against certain opposition.
United reportedly rebuffed interest in Lingard during the off-season. With the 2022 World Cup just over a year away, though, he might feel he needs to push for a move in January if he has been unable to climb Solskjaer’s hierarchy of attacking options.
Rather than allowing his 20-year stay with the club to dwindle as his contract runs down, United should show Lingard a little more love.