Football Features

Jesse Lingard: A key part of Man Utd’s plans or Solskjaer’s next Sanchez?

By Ben Green

Published: 16:55, 22 July 2021

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s track record of promising players game time at Manchester United is hit-and-miss to say the least.

“Alexis [Sanchez] will come back in the summer and prove you all wrong,” the Norwegian commented in January 2020, before he was sold on a free transfer to Inter Milan six months later.

In December 2019, a month before that Sanchez soundbite, Solskjaer also commented that Chris Smalling would ‘return’ from his loan spell at Roma, but he too remained in Italy permanently.

On Sunday, after the club’s pre-season win over Wayne Rooney’s Derby County, in which Jesse Lingard came on as a second-half substitute, Solskjaer stated: “He’s still in my plans. I expect him at Man Utd at the start of the season.”

Given the case studies of Sanchez and Smalling, West Ham, whom Lingard enjoyed a successful loan spell at after joining in January, may yet think their chances of signing the England international permanently are still alive.

It is believed David Moyes wants to retain the services of Lingard following his temporary stint in London, in which the 28-year-old scored nine goals and recorded four assists in just 16 Premier League games, culminating in the club securing a spot in the Europa League group stages.

At one point, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Lingard would remain in E20, particularly after Man Utd’s talks with Borussia Dortmund over the transfer of Jadon Sancho accelerated, but the narrative has since shifted, with dwindling hope now permeating the London Stadium.

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Reports suggest the club are not willing to meet Man Utd’s £30m asking price, a reasonable response from the makers and shakers in east London given Lingard is now in the final 12 months of his contract, while it is believed the midfielder wants to stay at Old Trafford and fight for his place.

If that were the case, and considering the impending transfer of Sancho, where would Lingard conceivably fit into Solskjaer’s “plans”? This is, after all, a player whom Solskjaer afforded just nine Premier League starts in 2019/20 and not a single minute in the first half of last season before his move to the capital.

Perhaps Lingard’s purple patch, which facilitated a return to the international fold after a two-year exile, has recalibrated Solskjaer’s thinking. If Lingard can replicate the form he showcased at West Ham then, of course, Man Utd would be getting a very reliable asset and a potential difference-maker.

Given the surfeit of talent Pep Guardiola has at his disposal across the city, Solskjaer may be looking to bulk up his own squad and have options ahead of the new campaign. Lingard’s prolific tendencies going forward and versatility to play across the frontline certainly offer an appealing marriage of talents.

From Lingard’s debut for West Ham on the 3rd of February against Aston Villa, in which Moyes’ men triumphed 3-1 and Lingard notched a brace, Man Utd were second and just three points off pace-setters Manchester City. Would his contributions have proven the difference between a runners-up position and first?

Probably not is the short answer. City were utterly ruthless and dominant post-autumn last season, an absolute juggernaut that steamrollered anyone in their way. But, from that February 3 date (Lingard’s West Ham debut), City would go on to lose matches against Man Utd, Leeds United, Chelsea and Brighton.

If the Red Devils exerted a little more pressure, there could have been further slip-ups and iffy moments at the Etihad. Lingard ended up making 13 direct contributions for the Hammers (nine goals and four assists), while the most for Man Utd in that time was Bruno Fernandes on nine (six goals and three assists).

Of course, the change of scenery and a new lease of life as the midfield fulcrum under Moyes perhaps fostered a renewed vibrancy in Lingard, a motivation so intense it was almost tangible at the London Stadium. It was the perfect environment in which Lingard could reinvent himself, become the talisman.

Returning to Old Trafford, he now finds himself once again in flux and his career possibly in stasis. Fernandes remains first in the pecking order as the No.10, while Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood (and even Dan James to a lesser extent) will tussle it out for a starting berth on the flanks.

Edinson Cavani has signed up for another year, while Anthony Martial, despite his diminishing form, is almost certainly ahead of Lingard at centre-forward (should Solskjaer opt to deploy the latter as a false nine). Perhaps the intention is to play Lingard further back, in a creator-destroyer partnership with Fred.

An unlikely scenario given Lingard’s excellence as a playmaker and even an inside forward on the left flank for West Ham. If that was the form that changed Solskjaer’s tune, then surely you offer the player those same terms. But, it’s hard to envisage a scenario where Lingard outranks Sancho, Rashford or Greenwood.

Lingard is simply left with two options: stay and produce the form that catapulted him back into the England team, giving Solskjaer absolutely no choice but to play him. Or join West Ham and become the poster boy of a club attempting to permanently break the glass ceiling and remain part of the European furniture.

Lingard’s choice could prove career-defining.