Manchester United, 2011–
A loan move to West Ham and an unlikely partnership with David Moyes has proved the catalyst for reviving Jesse Lingard’s career. Bruno Fernandes' arrival at Old Trafford and the emergence of Mason Greenwood meant that under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer opportunities for Lingard at his boyhood club Manchester United had become rare.
In London, however, Lingard was a revelation for a team that had one of its best ever campaigns in the Premier League. It took Lingard just 10 appearances to reach his highest-ever Premier League goals tally of nine. Not only did he earn a recall with England, according to Solskjaer he has returned to his plans for United. “Of course we want him back," the Norwegian said. "He never once caused me a problem and he deserved a chance to play more football."
Lingard is a versatile attacking midfielder comfortable in any attacking midfield position. Regardless of whether he is selected wide, as a number 10, as an attacking central midfielder or as one of two 10s behind a lone striker, he is at his best in central spaces between the lines. His movement – and more specifically the timing of his movements and the awareness he shows in making runs – is a particular strength.
He often makes sharp movements from a deeper position into a more advanced one, looking to receive a square pass on the run and therefore primed to quickly move play forwards. He will generally wait until his teammate has drawn opponents in to make those movements, aiming to take advantage of the space their opponents have left by closing down the player in possession; doing so helps his team to progress through defensive blocks at speed.
That positive, front-foot mentality is a consistent feature of his play. After receiving the ball, he favours manoeuvring into a forward-facing position as quickly as possible – usually via taking his first touch on the half-turn, by rolling his opponent, by allowing the ball to travel across his body or by turning before he has even taken a touch. Nimble footwork and impressive agility make Lingard capable of doing so effectively and consistently.
His mobility is also a big strength when he has the ball at his feet, because he can carry play forwards at pace and quickly change direction or decelerate to avoid pressure. He also shows good awareness of his surroundings and vision when timing when to release the ball. He often plays passes at a moment when he appears at risk of overrunning the ball, but there is thought behind his actions; he does so to draw opponents towards the ball and free up a teammate who he can then pick out. He often then makes a further forward run and looks for the return pass.
That all ultimately makes Lingard particularly effective at breaking lines and doing so at speed. He is effective on the counter and he combines well with other players who thrive when playing high-tempo football. When he is instead attempting to play at a slower tempo – perhaps in a team that likes to take their time on the ball and enjoy longer periods of possession – or with less mobile teammates, he is less comfortable, and his passing becomes both less accurate and less effective.
Though he is known more as a player who creates chances or plays the pass before the assist, he also poses a significant goal threat, as he proved at West Ham under Moyes. His forward runs often take him beyond the opposition's defence and into goalscoring positions, but he usually shoots from the pass that follows a ball forwards (above) rather than being played directly in on goal himself.
He is similarly proactive in his defensive work and he presses with energy, and he is intelligent enough to read his opponent’s intentions. His work ethic and his anticipation lead to an impressive number of recoveries through interceptions. A relative lack of upper-body strength makes him less effective when directly challenging opponents in individual duels, but he makes up for that with intelligent movements and his reading of the game.
Role at West Ham
Lingard thrived as the number 10 in Moyes’ 4-2-3-1 at West Ham – where he last played regular first-team football – by providing a consistent threat on the opposition’s goal and plenty of creative nous, two aspects of his game that had been noticeable in their absence across 2018/19 and 2019/20 at Manchester United .
He worked extremely hard out of possession to both try and win the ball back and to help keep their rigid 4-4-2 defensive shape, but it was at attacking transitions that he sprung to life. He was perfect for Moyes’ hugely effective counter-attacking game, able to either carry the ball forwards at pace himself (above) or to make space for others with a direct forward sprint to stretch retreating opponents.
Given the work he did for West Ham and the ground he covered, it was surprisingly rare how often he left the area of the pitch in which a number 10 would be expected to operate. He only infrequently withdrew deep to collect the ball during build-up phases and just as infrequently broke beyond the centre-forward. Lots of West Ham’s play involved getting into wide positions and putting balls into the middle for Michail Antonio or Tomas Soucek to attack; the wide forward on the opposite wing also attacked the penalty area. Lingard, however, instead took up a position outside of the area to receive a cut-back or to pick the ball up from any half-clearances (above), an approach that brought him plenty of success.
Lingard’s finishing has rarely been widely praised, but he showed flashes of brilliance in West Ham's colours. Particularly impressive was his ability to pick his spot when shooting from distance and to find the corner of the net.
A player who had come to be perceived as rather unfashionable – hard-working and functional but lacking end product – reignited his career as an exciting, creative and extremely effective attacking midfielder at West Ham. Given the chance to play regularly, Lingard has shown he has significantly more to offer.
Author: Pascal Marechal