In the summer of 2018 Jesse Lingard’s career could hardly have been in a better place having enjoyed a breakthrough 12 months for club and country. Joe Townsend looks at the possible reasons why that has proved to be the high point.
When Jesse Lingard stepped off the plane at Birmingham Airport in July 2018 alongside his England team-mates and their coaching staff, they were returning to the country as heroes.
Gareth Southgate’s side may not have brought the trophy back from Russia, but in becoming the first England men's side to reach a major tournament semi-final for 22 years, and the first ever to win a World Cup penalty shootout, they had defied pre-tournament expectations and more importantly captured the hearts of a nation.
Like so many of that squad, for Lingard, at 25-years-old, it should have been a launching-off point, the platform from which he would blossom.
But he is far from in the minority when it comes to his career stalling, or even declining, since English football's unforgettable summer.
So let’s start there.
The 2018 World Cup
Now this is a piece about Jesse Lingard, so I’ll aim to be brief, but the plight of that England squad since Russia provides useful context.
I would suggest that only seven of the 23-man squad, and just four of the starting XI, have unequivocally taken the 2018 World Cup in their stride: Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Nick Pope.
That is a very low strike-rate. And I’m not the only one who thinks it: only 12 of that 23 were included in Gareth Southgate’s most recent England squad.
Survivors from England’s 2018 World Cup squad
- Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope
- Trent Alexander-Arnold, Harry Maguire, Danny Rose, John Stones, Kieran Trippier
- Fabian Delph, Jordan Henderson
- Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling
Of the players who have struggled for form there are Kyle Walker and John Stones, Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose, Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Ruben Loftus-Cheek - I think you get the picture.
Trippier and Rose have spoken openly about how difficult they found the season following the World Cup, with Trippier ultimately leaving Tottenham to join Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2019 for a fresh start. Rose moved to Newcastle a few months later.
Their long-time Spurs team-mate Dier has perhaps been one of the best examples of form dropping off a cliff. He has only recently begun to show some kind of resurgence since the arrival of Jose Mourinho, after 18 months in the wilderness.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek – a breakout star of the tournament – has had injury problems to deal with, but his 2018/19 season was defined by a complete lack of playing time at Chelsea.
This cannot all be coincidental. Perhaps being part of an England team that reached the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time in almost 30 years takes its toll, the sheer emotional upheaval of it.
Plus, were England's individual players really that good? The combination of superb management from Southgate, successfully making the team greater than the sum of its parts, and a favourable draw were crucial in the outcome.
Maybe expecting that summer not to be the pinnacle for so many is simply unrealistic.
Add in the effect of an elongated season and consequently shortened pre-season, far from an ideal way to prepare for the rigours of the most physically demanding top flight in European football, and we may be hitting on to something.
Manchester United's slump
When Jesse Lingard was named in the England XI to start their opening match of the World Cup it surprised no-one, he had become a fixture in the team.
Throughout the past 20 months the midfielder has been talked about in pretty disparaging terms, often unfairly used as an example of that class of 2018 being a fairly average group of players.
In his case specifically, what is consistently forgotten is how he earned that spot in the first place - his form for Manchester United justified selection.
People forget because it's a scenario that is very difficult to imagine right now.
His role in the United midfield was crucial to them finishing as runners-up to Manchester City in the 2017/18 Premier League, an achievement Jose Mourinho later described as the greatest of his managerial career.
Lingard scored 13 goals and provided seven assists in all competitions that season.
James Maddison and Mason Mount, the players who have since replaced him in the England squad, will have to go some to match those 20 goal involvements this term, with the pair on 12 and 11 respectively.
I don’t remember Lingard ever being lavished with the same praise as those two have been.
Jesse Lingard Manchester United stats
- 2015/16: 40 games; 6 goals; 4 assists
- 2016/17: 42 games; 5 goals; 3 assists
- 2017/18: 48 games; 13 goals; 7 assists
- 2018/19: 36 games; 5 goals; 4 assists
- 2019/20: 35 games; 2 goals; 2 assists
Now I mentioned that Mourinho quote for a reason. At the time, it was scoffed at by huge swaths of the football world as an attempt to limit expectations and to self-praise, but it really has aged well.
Before that next Christmas he was sacked.
Lingard was one of umpteen Manchester United players underperforming, but was immediately trusted by caretaker boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The team won the Norwegian's first eight games, with Lingard missing only the FA Cup third round.
He lost his place in the team through injury towards the end of that campaign, and has never properly won it back. Interestingly his absence coincided with United's drop in form.
Lingard has not scored or assisted in the Premier League since Solskjaer's second game in charge against Huddersfield in December 2018, so there is no debating the fact this is a sustained dip in form.
His goal involvement stats show that in a team that is functioning well, Lingard can play a valuable role.
Currently though, there is only one season of evidence to support that. If he forces his way back in to a United team that can maintain the form it had found under Solskjaer before football was suspended, perhaps more of an argument can be made.
What is his role?
An in-form Jesse Lingard is quite possibly a manager's dream.
His versatility has seen him play in every midfield and forward position for Manchester United other than as a holding player in front of the back four, even playing as a wing-back under Louis van Gaal.
And just to round it off, during England's World Cup campaign both he and Dele Alli were used as what Gareth Southgate described as "eight-and-a-halves."
That probably best sums Lingard up. He does not quite have the quality to be a true, creative number 10, nor does he possess the all-round game to be a box-to-box number eight.
But generally, he tends to play in one of the three attacking roles behind a central striker, slotting in to the role that is most needed dependent on the strengths and weaknesses of his team-mates.
While that versatility is great for a manager, it's prevented him from ever properly defining a role for himself.
Jesse Lingard per game stats
- 2017/18: 87.8 % pass completion; 3.3 inaccurate short passes; 0.6 dispossessions
- 2018/19: 85.7 % pass completion; 3.7 inaccurate short passes; 0.7 dispossessions
- 2019/20: 87.7 % pass completion; 2.2 inaccurate short passes; 0.5 dispossessions
There is far more to football than goals and assists, so what are Lingard's strengths?
Put crudely, he is very good at keeping hold of the ball. Over the past three seasons there hasn't been a major fluctuation in his stats associated with keeping possession.
And as you can see, he has actually given the ball away even less this season.
What's important to note though, is that those inaccurate short passes are strongly tied to how risky and creative a player you are. Kevin De Bruyne makes nine inaccurate short passes per game.
That is the same number as Paul Pogba, which just emphasises the mixture of players that you need in a midfield. Lingard is the perfect foil for Pogba in this respect.
Off the field problems
When Jesse Lingard was struggling for form he was criticised for spending too much time working on his business outside of football, displaying a lack of focus.
When he was playing well it was great to see a footballer thinking about life after his career, and his form was in part due to him having a creative escapism from the pressure of top level sport.
It suits whatever agenda someone is pushing at the time. Personally, I see it as pretty irrelevant. Good for him if he's got business interests.
One thing that certainly did prove to be a problem was when he was given, in his own words, a "last chance" by Solskjaer last summer after he posted an expletive-ridden video on social media.
Then in December, both manager and player revealed they'd had a heart to heart about issues the midfielder was having to deal with in his private life.
Lingard had taken on a bigger responsibility for his two younger siblings after his mother became ill, with one of them moving into his house. He even attended parents' evening in his mother's absence.
Quite the situation to step in to, and one that he felt had hugely affected his usually upbeat persona, and consequently his football.
Solskjaer's advice was to "play with a smile" and for a short period that seemed to work as Lingard forced his way back in to the team.
But it didn't last, and he has played just a handful of minutes since being taken off an hour into the 2-0 defeat at Arsenal on New Year's Day.
Hopefully for Lingard, this break from football could work in his favour.
Whatever happens, the next few months look set to define Jesse Lingard's career.
His Manchester United contract expires in June 2021 and whether he stays or leaves his boyhood club, the deal will be negotiated by a man who is not especially popular at Old Trafford.
'Super agent' Mino Raiola, who represents Paul Pogba, Erling Braut Haaland and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was hired by Lingard in January.
Given his client's form over the past 20 months, Raiola may have a slightly trickier job on his hands than with those other names mentioned, although Everton and Leicester have already been linked in the back-page transfer gossip.
Let's just say this could be an interesting summer.
Follow Sporting Life on social - find us on Facebook here or tweet@SportingLifeFC
Related football content
- The Bundesliga scouting report
- What has happened to Alexis?
- Le Tiss: The ultimate one-club man
- PODCAST: Premier League Weekly
- Pundits' Player of the Year
- Championship: Five predictions
- When Liverpool last won the title...
- 12 one-season wonders in the PL
- This season's best PL XI
- Laura Woods column: How's the bacon?
- What has happened to Coutinho?
- The best sporting documentaries
- Paper Talk - latest transfer gossip