Jesse Lingard has been written off more than once but he returns to Brighton as a key player for Manchester United. Adam Bate examines his rise and the qualities that make him an essential player for Jose Mourinho – qualities that so many missed.
Keith Andrews was part of the coaching staff at MK Dons when the conversation turned to a young player who was finally getting his opportunity in the Manchester United first-team. It was nothing out of the ordinary. Just everyday football chat. Do you rate him? Is the lad any good? But Andrews still bristled at what he was hearing about Jesse Lingard.
“His name got brought up and there were certain members of staff and people around the club who were not singing his praises as a player,” Andrews tells Sky Sports. “It annoyed me a little bit and it still annoys me that people are a little bit sceptical about him.”
The pair had been team-mates at Brighton during the 2013/14 season. It was there that Andrews got a first-hand look at the qualities those who know Lingard rate so highly but those on the outside can miss. The positive attitude. The appetite to improve. The selflessness off the ball that helps his team.
“It is a long way from home for a Warrington lad who had been in Manchester since he was a schoolboy,” says Andrews, “but he settled in very quickly. He was just a breath of fresh air. He was bubbly and a character around the place with a nice level of confidence.
“There was a little bit of uncertainty about the recruitment at the time. Ashley Barnes left in the January to go to Burnley, which the players at the time were not particularly happy about, but it was a club decision in terms of his contract. Jesse was one of the players who came in and he was probably one of the only players who made a big impact.
“Instantly you could see that he was a bundle of energy and was going to give us something different. We played a 4-2-3-1 formation with him in one of those positions behind the striker. I would not say that he was a guaranteed starter. He was in and out of the team but even when he came on he made a difference from the bench.”
Lingard scored four goals in his 17 appearances for Brighton in that 2013/14 season, including the opening goal in the team’s play-off semi-final defeat to Derby County. That was also the club that he joined on loan the following season to add to his Championship experience before becoming a regular at Old Trafford over the past three years.
Lingard, of course, went on to score the winning goal in the 2016 FA Cup final. He has since added a goal in Community Shield and EFL Cup successes, a winner against Chelsea in February and the only goal of the game for England against Netherlands in March. He is a Jose Mourinho favourite for his club and a likely starter for his country at the World Cup.
“He has taken it all step by step from Brighton to Derby and from being a squad player at Manchester United to playing in the biggest games,” says Andrews. “I could see that he had something about him but I would be fibbing if I said I thought it would go this well – playing regularly for Manchester United, scoring in an FA Cup final and going to a World Cup.”
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Many Manchester United supporters have gone rather further than that, as Gary Neville pointed out on Monday Night Football. “A year ago, some on social media were saying he was not good enough to play for Manchester United or that he has not got the quality,” said Neville. “There are players there with more natural talent, I would say.
“But what Jesse Lingard has is an incredible ability to make good runs and to make the right runs. It reminds me of the job that Ji-Sung Park did for Manchester United for so long. The ability to make other players around him better. The one who fills the void by doing the things others won’t do.
“I think Jose Mourinho has needed him in that team as a balance to the players who don’t make the same frequency of runs in behind at the same speed. They don’t have the same work ethic. He has an incredible work ethic on and off the ball.”
The recent victory over Arsenal at Old Trafford illustrated that point clearly. Lingard made more high-intensity runs than any of his team-mates in Manchester United’s 2-1 win – despite that fact that he was substituted with half an hour of the game still left to play.
“Mourinho always seems to find a position for him because he has that knack of running in behind and stretches the opposition,” says Andrews. “He does so much unselfish running for the team that is not always seen. He has added more composure and confidence too.”
That too is reflected in the numbers. Eight Premier League goals this season compared to one goal last term. Five Premier League assists in 2017/18, up from two in 2016/17. The improvement is obvious and Neville is among those proud that he “has come right the way through the ranks” to become such a vital player at Manchester United.
It is a triumph for the club’s youth system. But also, as Andrews explains, for their loan strategy. “I am a fan of loans as part of a player’s development,” he says. “I think they are imperative. We have seen the loan market change in the last year or so, stopping short-term loans, and I think what happens is that the bigger clubs tend to stockpile players just in case.
“If you look at that season when Jesse came to Brighton, he might not have gone out on loan under the current rules. The following season he went to Derby and that too was part of the development process in terms of clocking up games at senior level at an intensity that prepares you to play at the highest level that your ability and attitude allows you.”
Lingard’s ability and attitude is such that it has carried him further than many of his critics – whether on social media or among football’s lower-league talking shops – ever imagined. On Friday, he will walk out at the Amex Stadium once again. But he will not be lining up alongside his old Brighton team-mates. He will be there as a Manchester United regular.