Under normal circumstances, an attacking midfielder who had just scored twice for England in front of an adoring crowd would be the subject of widespread calls for inclusion in every team Gareth Southgate picks for the foreseeable future. But these aren’t normal circumstances, and this is Jesse Lingard.
On loan at West Ham United in 2020-21, he proved to a doubting Premier League audience that he still has an abundance of ability as he scored nine goals in just half a season. But having just missed out on England's Euro 2020 squad, this summer has surprisingly seen him stay put at Old Trafford.
Now 28, he finds himself near the back of the queue for both club and country, with no feasible route to first-team football for either. At Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hasn’t afforded him too many opportunities in the league, and Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho’s arrival this summer means competition for forward places is higher than ever.
Realistically, for his club, Lingard is potentially the fifth choice winger. Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood all currently lie ahead of him, with the irreplaceable Bruno Fernandes supported by Donny van de Beek in the number ten role. By staying at United, he has limited any chance of starting for his club and now has also put his chance of any future England caps at risk.
He clearly possesses a huge amount of ability but, unfortunately for him, he is now part of two sides that feature an array of talented forwards. If he couldn’t get in an extended 26-player squad for Euro 2020 after his stunning end to the season, what hope does he have for the future?
With Raheem Sterling, the emergence of Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish as well as Manchester United duo Rashford and Sancho, Lingard will not be selected in Southgate’s squad unless he is playing regularly at club level. Which he won’t. It is not outlandish to suggest that despite his brace against Andorra and his great relationship with the manager, 28-year-old Lingard may only have a couple of international caps left in him.
To avoid becoming the ‘nearly man’ for both club and country, Lingard faces a huge fight. If he can somehow force his way back into United’s starting line-up, his decision to stay at the club will be justified and the opportunity to start for England will open up once again. However, that is incredibly unlikely.
Under Jose Mourinho, he was valued at United and was a key cog in England’s 2018 World Cup squad, but since Solskjaer arrived he has struggled to nail down a place. This term, he is likely to sit on the bench for United and only appear in cup games, which will result in his losing his place in the Three Lions squad.
However, he is now in the final year of his United contract, which is a positive for both player and club, as he is unlikely to be offered a new deal. January provides a huge opportunity. He can sign a pre-contract agreement with any European club, and next summer he can join a Premier League side on a free.
The frustration for Lingard is that he will be 29 by then, and this feels like yet more wasted time in a career that has not quite fulfilled its potential, despite his World Cup semi-final appearance.
West Ham and Moyes were perfect for him, understanding that the team must be set up to allow the Englishman to flourish. He worked hard off the ball, but with it at his feet he was given the license to roam and cause chaos. A return to West Ham next summer would be ideal, as would a potential move to Everton, but will Lingard’s career have changed much in 12 months' time?
For a decade he has been an exciting talent, but the first half of 2021 arguably provided his best form to date. Frustratingly for Lingard, it seems like the next few months will provide little progress for his career, while his England opportunities are likely to evaporate as his Manchester United game-time reduces further.
It would take something utterly spectacular for Lingard to break into United’s first team and stay at the club beyond this season. As for England, there are younger options that Southgate may prefer, but the manager simply cannot pick him if he isn’t playing for his club. The next few months will be intriguing for Lingard, but the January transfer window could dictate his future international fate.