Jump Jesse, Jump

It was a sunny afternoon in Manchester on 16th August 2014. After a fairly successful preseason, the first game of the Premier league campaign awaited Louis van Gaal, as Manchester United prepared to take on Swansea City at Old Trafford. There was a joyous buzz all around the stadium for the new season, as the nightmare that was the 2013/14 season had come to an end. Perhaps van Gaal, after coming off a successful World Cup for Netherlands, could be the one to steer United in the right direction, and take the club forward in the post-SAF era.

Van Gaal, by all accounts, failed at United, but where he did succeed was in his youth development. Under his watch, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford would find the best form of their career. But while Martial would arrive a year later, and why Rashford would make his debut a few months later, one key player was set to make his start from the get-go.

Against Swansea, Jesse Lingard, then 21, made his first-team debut for Manchester United. He had impressed in the preseason in the USA, where he had rounded off his promising performances by scoring against Liverpool in the final of ICC Cup. Deployed as a right-sided wingback in a 3-5-2 formation, debut day wasn’t the one to remember for the young Lingard. He was injured in the 24th minute, and had to be taken off. The knee injury for Jesse proved to be a significant one, as it took over four months for him to recover completely. When he did come back from injury, he found himself competing with Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj, Ashley Young and Ángel Di María for playing time. Soon, he left for yet another loan spell, this time to Derby County in February of 2015.

The story of Lingard’s four loan spells had been quite similar. He got the game time he was looking for, but his numbers in front of the goal were never that great. Be it Brighton, Birmingham, Leicester or Derby, his goals and assists tally never really skyrocketed, and United fans were never chomping at the bit to bring him back into the first team.

The summer of 2015 bought plenty of drama at the Theatre of Dreams. High-profile players like Radamel Falcao, Ángel Di María, Robin Van Persie and Chicharito Hernandez were shipped off. Replacing them where young talents such as Martial, Memphis Depay, and Lingard, who returned from loan to wear the #35 and fight for a spot in the first team.

In November, he finally made his mark, curling in a beautiful shot from the edge of the box to give United the lead against a resolute West Bromwich side. Although the winter was a miserable one for LvG, as United were knocked out of the Champions League in the group stages, Lingard was finding his feet, either at the Number 10 role or on the wide right. It looked like Lingard was finding his footing when he found the back of the net against the likes of Newcastle, Stoke and Chelsea, but what led him down, time and time again, was his consistency. His excellent off the ball movement got him into very good positions, but his finishing wasn’t quite at the level expected from a Manchester United player. It seemed as if he would rather always score a screamer, and never a tap-in. Then came the FA Cup Final of 2016.

It was United’s first final in post Ferguson era. Juan Mata’s equalizer had sent the game to extra time, but Chris Smalling’s red card early on in extra time made life difficult for United. But the ten men of Manchester United always kept faith. In the 110th minute, Damien Delaney got a foot on Antonio Valencia’s cross, but the clearance fell straight to Lingard. Most players would have scuppered a shot, as a fast-moving, bouncing high ball isn’t exactly the easiest shot to hit. But what Lingard did in the next split second will give him a permanent place in the United folklore. A rocket of a shot, on the half-volley, into the top corner of Crystal Palace’s net, sent United fans all around the world into berserk celebrations. United had won its first trophy since Sir Alex had left.

Jesse Lingard had repaid the debt to his boyhood club, and the summer of 2016 turned out to be even more eventful as a new manager arrived. This time it was the Special One, José Mourinho. Mourinho had been portrayed as a destroyer of the youth, and many pundits predicted it would lead to a life on the sidelines for the likes of Lingard and Rashford. But all doubts were swatted away by José when he started Lingard ahead of the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata in his first game, the Charity Shield. Lingard had tasted blood on Wembley soil, and he wanted more and more of the same. He took on the Leicester City defense all by himself, tiptoed his way to the edge of the box, and slotted the ball in through the legs of Kasper Schmeichel.

A poor display in the first Manchester Derby of the season certainly raised doubts over Lingard’s quality, both in minds of Mourinho and the fans. Although he continued to start, as Mourinho was still unconvinced that Mkhitaryan was ready for English football, Lingard’s goals and assists dried up. But then, Lingard did what many would believe is the most Lingard thing to do. He scored yet another goal in yet another cup final at Wembley. This time it was Southampton in the EFL Cup Final.

Mourinho’s men had won their first trophy of the season, and a certain Swedish lion got all the praise and deservedly so, but Lingard once again proved to be the man for the big occasion. A couple of weeks later, he scored again, this time a goal of the season contender, at Middlesborough’s Riverside Stadium. It proved that Lingard may not be a great goal scorer, but he definitely is a scorer of great goals.

Mourinho’s United started the 2017/18 season with a bang. It seemed like Romelu Lukaku was an unstoppable force, scoring in eight consecutive matches. Mkhitaryan was giving impressions that he had been playing at Old Trafford for years, as he racked up his assist numbers exponentially. Martial and Rashford took turns to tighten the screws in the tired defenses by repeatedly scoring late goals. Lingard, as done for most of his life, was pushed again on the sidelines. But the 25-year-old has never let that deter him. He has a burning desire inside him, a desire to never give up. To fight to get the opportunities and then grasp them with both hands. And boy oh boy, did he grasp his opportunity this time. United struggled in absence of Paul Pogba, as Mkhitaryan’s form dried up. Mourinho was looking for an alternative solution, and on the away trip to Swansea’s Liberty Stadium in the Carabao Cup, Lingard showed Mourinho what he was missing with his two well-taken goals.

Every player has a game in his career that he would look back one and say, that was the game that changed everything for me. For Lingard, the game against Watford, away at Vicarage Road, would fall in that category. Chasing City’s 8-point lead at the top of the table, United had taken a quite comfortable 3-0 lead at the halftime whistle. But their inability to kill the game in the second half gave Watford hope, and they scored twice in a quick succession to make it 3-2. A Watford equalizer seemed inevitable, but then, feeding on Ander Herrera’s clearance, Lingard ran more than 70 yards of the pitch with the ball. Twisting and turning, he dribbled past a nervous Watford defense and slotted the ball home, past an awestruck Heurelho Gomes and dare I say, without breaking a sweat. It was a goal that even the greats Maradona and Messi would be proud of. After this, there was just no stopping Jesse Lingard.

In the next game at Emirates Stadium, United, led by a valiant David De Gea at the back and a tireless Jesse Lingard at the front, beat Arsenal 3-1, and Lingard scored a brace. He just couldn’t stop scoring, as he popped up with one more at the Hawthorns and then, on Boxing Day, when Burnley were leading 2-0 at HT at Old Trafford, Lingard came off the bench, took the game by the scruff of the neck, and scored twice to make it 2-2 in injury time. The local lad from Warrington had spent enough of his time in the shadows. Now he wanted to become the main man.

That’s what he proved to be, a leader on the pitch, scoring 13 goals and providing 5 assists over the course of the season in all competitions. It is said that change is the only constant in nature, and in the case of Jesse Lingard, this aphorism rings true. A player who was nowhere near the England setup in 2016 suddenly became one of the first names on the team sheet for Gareth Southgate. The Three Lions, beyond all expectations, reached the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time in 28 years. And at the heart of it was Lingard and his selfless off the-ball-movement, clever one-twos, and an eye for a killer pass. He suddenly transformed from “that prick Lingard” to “Come on Jesse” in the eyes of most England fans. All club rivalries were defenestrated, and each and every England fan celebrated together when Lingard scored an absolute pearl of a goal against Panama. He turned even his biggest critics into his fanboys. Yes, it was just Panama, but it was probably the best of the 12 goals England scored in Russia.

It was not just his goals, but his clever movement and passing that created havoc in opposition defenses. Just ask Swedish defenders in the quarterfinals, how with just one swing of his right foot, he put all the defenders out of the picture and laid it on a plate for Dele Alli to head home.

One might wonder what has suddenly gotten into Jesse Lingard. How did someone who was regarded as a meagre squad player until as recently as last summer, explode to glory? Credit should be given to José Mourinho here and his relentless “us against the world” approach. He doesn’t get the much deserved praise that other managers like Pep Guardiola do, but clearly, his hard work behind the curtains has worked wonders for United’s diminutive No.14. The greatest manager in football history, Sir Alex Ferguson, predicted his rise in 2012, when Lingard, at 19, was preparing for his first loan move to Leicester. He had said,” Jesse Lingard is going to be some player. He is 19, came through our youth system and is built like Jean Tigana was for France. But he never got into the limelight until he was 24, and I think that will be the same for Lingard.”

The great Scot had foreseen this five years ago. José Mourinho noted in one of his post match press conferences last season that some players have great potential as youngsters, but turn into average players, while others jump from average potential to become great players. The time has come for Jesse Lingard. He is making the jump.

By: Prashant Tiwari

Photo: Getty