If there is one player who has come to define, for better or worse, the last few years at Manchester United, it’s Jesse Lingard. The 27-year-old is far from the best or most talented player at Old Trafford, nor is he among the most influential, but he has become a symbol of where United are as a club right now.
In another era, in another Man Utd team, Lingard would be a useful squad figure. While he has struggled for form of late, failing to score a goal or notch an assist over the entirety of 2019, Lingard has talent. His versatility was used to great effect by both Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, with Gareth Southgate also squeezing the best out of the player for England at the 2018 World Cup.
Lingard, however, is not the sort of playing a club like Manchester United should be building its team around in the hope of returning to the top table. The Old Trafford outfit’s scattergun approach to the transfer market in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson age has put him in a position he should never have been in. Lingard has been made a victim of all that is currently wrong with Man Utd.
Some of the criticism eased recently when Lingard explained to the Daily Mail that he has been dealing with personal trauma. His mother has a long-term illness which has resulted in the player taking in his 14-year-old brother and even attending parents' evenings, while his grandfather, a huge personal influence in Jesse's career, has prostate cancer. The burden became too much for Lingard, who then had to ask United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for some leeway.
"I am normally quite bubbly and want to put smiles on people's faces but people have seen the change in my ways," Lingard said in the interview.
"I have been down and glum; just worrying. I felt like everybody just passed all the stuff to me and it weighed on my shoulders. It was like: 'Here you go Jesse, you deal with this on your own'."
But just a month on from those revelations, Lingard is still finding his performances come under the spotlight, and that is largely due to the fact that United are struggling and in need of a driving force.
Tonight, Lingard and his United teammates host Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup and once again it is the Warrington product who is likely become the focus of much scrutiny. However his manager still believes he has much more to give to the Red Devils.
“He’s Man United through and through,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer told the press, defending Lingard when asked what he brought to the table. “He’s a red, he’s got a great attitude and a great work rate. You can criticise anyone about anything but for me as a manager, I have to look after these boys in the good and the bad times. It’s great to work with him. I had him in the reserves… gave him his debut against Burnley. It’s good to see him back to his old self.”
Despite Solskjaer’s comments, Lingard has to be one of the players United are looking to upgrade. The 27-year-old has kept his place in the team this season purely because Man Utd have nobody else to act as the link between midfield and attack. With a creative midfielder almost certain to be signed before the start of next season, though, Lingard’s place is surely at risk.
He seems to have acknowledged as much to in deciding to link up with Mino Raiola, the notorious agent of Lingard's close friend Paul Pogba, in a move which could well result in him being touted around the transfer market this summer as both the player and the club look to move on.
The Lingard situation provides a microcosm of Man Utd’s problems in general. It’s not that they have bad players, it’s just that many of the players they have would be squad figures at many of their rivals. This could be said of a number at Old Trafford - see Victor Lindelof, Fred, Dan James and Andreas Pereira. But just as Marouane Fellaini was seen as the clumsy, bumbling personification of Mourinho's United, so Lingard has become the unwitting example of the issues currently plaguing Solskjaer's Reds.