Football Features

Jesse Lingard: West Ham’s unexpected Haller replacement?

By Ben Green

Published: 8:00, 2 February 2021

West Ham have a habit of signing out-of-favour players from the so-called ‘Big Six’, but the arrival of Jesse Lingard has a different feel to it.

The Manchester United midfielder has completed a loan move to the club until the end of the season after West Ham made Said Benrahma’s temporary switch a permanent one to facilitate the transfer.

The transfer hasn’t been met with open arms by everyone at West Ham. Some fans are sceptical that a Sebastien Haller replacement has not been signed. But reading between the lines of David Moyes’ latest comments on Lingard’s transfer, could the Man Utd outcast be arriving as Michail Antonio’s direct competition?

“I think Jesse will give us more attacking options in as far as he can play nearly all the positions along the front line, and he can play as a midfield player as well,” said Moyes.

“I can’t deny we’d have liked another striker. We have made offers for one or two players we’d have liked to have got. But for different reasons they’ve not been gettable. Are we expecting any more incomings? At the moment, no.”

Lingard has operated as a pseudo-striker before and certainly knows where the back of the net is, but is the England international genuinely the much-vaunted forward fans were expecting this month? His history with Moyes may suggest so.

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A prolific pre-season

When Moyes first took over at Man Utd in the summer of 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson’s ‘Chosen One’ had just inherited a title-winning squad and a batch of promising youngsters. Lingard was chief among those, having famously starred in the 2011 FA Youth Cup-winning side that also included Paul Pogba.

A then 20-year-old Lingard made an instant impression under Moyes’ tutelage, finishing the club’s pre-season as the top scorer (four goals in Man Utd’s 2013/14 tour of Asia, Australia and Europe) and earning high praise from the new man in the dugout.

Those summer heroics would not be enough to persuade Moyes of immediate first-team involvement, however, and an initial one-month loan move to Birmingham soon followed. But that pre-season form translated to the Championship from day one.

On his debut, Lee Clark had obviously been keeping tabs on Lingard’s summer progress, as he deployed the youngster up front against Sheffield Wednesday, and he marked his St Andrew’s bow with a stellar first-half hat-trick, before putting the gloss on a memorable introduction with a fourth after the break.

Such was Lingard’s potent form in the West Midlands that Moyes contemplated a January recall and even hailed the talented tyro as the “future” of Man Utd. From those ephemeral months at Old Trafford, Moyes may have left with bad blood, but he got a first-hand look at Lingard’s scoring potential and his ability to play up front.

Mourinho’s transformation

It was some years later that Lingard’s stock skyrocketed as a consistent goal threat, and the Man Utd graduate would rise to prominence as a reliable goal-getter. Incredibly that rise came under Jose Mourinho, in a 2017/18 season that he described as one of the “biggest achievements” of his career.

Man Utd finished the season as runners-up in the Premier League and Lingard, for his part, made an eye-catching 20 ‘direct’ goal contributions across 48 games (13 goals, seven assists), as a reinvented No. 10. That purple patch culminated in a goal during the club’s 2017 League Cup win, and sparked high praise from Mourinho.

The Portuguese went as far as to describe Lingard as “the opposite of Marcus Rashford” (who was enduring a bit of a dry spell in front of goal at the time) with regards to his reading of the game and scoring potential. “Lingard’s mature, he understands the game better,” Mourinho said. “We speak about the areas I want him to play according to the different positions he can play, so clearly he is becoming a player.”

The lithe forward was used in numerous positions during Mourinho’s tenure, predominately on the wing or through the middle, but West Ham fans have already caught a glimpse of Lingard’s ‘No. 9’ potential, the forward having been deployed as a quasi-striker in the club’s goalless stalemate in the penultimate match of the 2017/18 season.

In that draw at the London Stadium, he produced more shots on target than any player (three), registered the second-best passing accuracy of any starter (which is no mean feat playing up front in tight pockets of space) and was also on set-piece duty that day, a particular area where West Ham have thrived this term.

It is that versatility which may explain why Moyes was so desperate to get bring forward Benrahma’s deal in order to pave the way for Lingard’s arrival.

His work rate is another key aspect of his game that may explain Moyes’ desperation to bring him to E20. He has instilled a more muck-or-nettles attitude at the club, which has been firmly embraced by the players, and Lingard’s bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed approach certainly fits the M.O.

An Antonio-Arnautovic blueprint?

That West Ham are fifth in the Premier League table this season without a recognised centre-forward on the books is quite staggering, really. Antonio, although now converted into an out-and-out No. 9, was at one time playing right-back for the club, while Moyes’ only other attacking options are a collection of wily wingers.

But, Antonio’s transformation could offer a indication of what fans may expect of Lingard in east London. Moyes was, after all, the man also responsible for transforming Marko Arnautovic from explosive winger to all-action centre-forward, another successful experiment from the sagacious Scot.

It may be that Lingard is perhaps too lightweight to mimic the hustle-and-bustle exploits of Antonio or Arnautovic in a ‘lone forward’ role, but as a ‘false nine’ or even as part of a two-man partnership there is scope for experiment, given his versatility and obvious attacking talents.

Moyes himself has even alluded to this possibility: “I actually think we could play him as a false nine if we needed it as well. He will bring me that.

“I’ve wanted to try and get an energetic team at the moment and I think Jesse is known for his work rate and effort and I think he’ll fit in nicely with what we’ve got.

“I hope he brings us a little bit of quality and a winning mentality from Manchester United.”

He may not be the Haller successor fans were hoping for, but this feels more than a hopeful punt on a ‘fringe’ midfielder. Rather, it has the hallmarks of a calculated move from Moyes, who seems to know exactly what he’s getting.