In The Pulpit: Is Jesse Lingard any good?

I have a question to ask you:

Is Jesse Lingard good?

I understand you may want me to qualify that question. What do I mean, is he good? Is he good enough for United? What about United’s first team? Or should he just be on the bench? Is he a good footballer compared to you or me? Why am I approaching strangers in the street and asking about Jesse Lingard? Well, my quizzical friend, don’t call the police just yet. I will now attempt to answer this question for you. Allow me to show my working.

Let’s start with his weaknesses. Lingard isn’t slow but he’s not lightning fast like Martial or Rashford. He’s good at carrying the ball forward at pace but doesn’t really possess the trickery to beat a man. Also, he’s not a brilliant passer and his finishing is very inconsistent. To be honest, if United could throw money at the problem and buy a world class number ten, poor Jesse wouldn’t even get a look in. Wait a minute, why am I defending this guy again?

Oh, right, yeah. His off the ball movement is incredible. He’s always moving, peeling wide from his central position, attempting to either drop deep or get beyond the forwards in front of him. This was exactly the sort of thing Ozil was hailed for in 2010 when he ended Gareth Barry’s international career. Lingard isn’t quite that good, but they do share this characteristic.

He’s also very good at being the connecting tissue between the members of the attacking unit. I don’t think we get the quick, counter-attacking football that we all saw on Saturday with Mata or Mkhitaryan. Lingard’s movement and agility, combined with his speed of thought, allows the other players to use him as a pivot for attacking moves. This is particularly useful in a counter-attacking system, which is why he has been so impressive in the last two fixtures.

We’ve had a look at Lingard, now who are his competitors for the number ten role? So far, it looks like they are Mkhitaryan, Mata and more recently, Zlatan. We’ll have a quick look at their strengths and weaknesses in turn.

At the start of the season, Mkhitaryan looked far and away the best option, getting five assists in the first three Premier League games. He seems to have all the qualities that Lingard has as well as being a better passer, dribbler and finisher. But he’s been below par for at least a month now, not even making it to the bench against Arsenal. There’s no way you could argue he deserves a place above Lingard at this moment in time. However, if he could play at the level he did at the start of the season for a sustained period, Mkhitaryan should be the first choice.

Over his career at United, Juan Mata has notched up a hatful of goals and assists, sometimes when they’ve needed them the most. This season he’s been pretty average, only managing one goal and one assist as well as routinely failing to play ninety minutes. Unfortunately for Mata, he has a chronic lack of pace and is completely unable to contribute defensively. This doesn’t really matter if you’re David Silva in a Pep Guardiola team. But if you’re playing number ten in a Mourinho team, you need to be able to do both of these. Lingard beats out Mata in both of these areas and so far this season, even has a better end product.

His final competitor is Zlatan. When he has featured this season, he’s largely played right up front and pushed Lukaku out to the flanks. But if he ever regains the ability to play ninety minutes, it’s unlikely Mourinho would make Lukaku play out of position to accommodate a thirty-six-year-old. It seems much more feasible that the Swede will end up in the number ten position.

Zlatan is obviously a far better finisher than Lingard,  has a much better eye for a pass and is even very strong and good in the air. But the same issues that face Mata apply to Zlatan. He doesn’t help defend from the front and is also very slow (although in this case, it’s because he’s thirty-six). If United are to continue to play a counter-attacking system, these are two areas that your number ten can’t be weak in.

You’ll have noticed that I keep referring to ‘a counter-attacking system.’ ‘But this is the mighty Manchester United,’ you may be saying. ‘They don’t play counter-attacking football.’ Well, dear stranger, who really should stop trying to dial 999, I would ask you what the hell you were doing last week, because that’s exactly how they played against Watford and Arsenal.

Of course, this has been a temporary tactic chosen specifically to combat the last two opponents. But wouldn’t it be beneficial for this to be the main tactic going forward? Naturally, against weaker opponents, it would need to be adjusted somewhat. The wing-backs would need to push further forward and the defensive line would have to be at least ten yards higher up. Just think of more goals like Lingard’s first against Arsenal. One or two passes, a gorgeous little flick, and a nice finish.

The squad doesn’t really have natural wingers. Rashford, Martial, Mkhitaryan, Mata and Lingard all look far more comfortable centrally than they do out wide. Valencia and Young are both very much in form. The back three of Lindelof, Smalling and Rojo have looked really comfortable in the past two fixtures. That’s not even United’s first choice back three, Bailly and Jones are still to come back from injury. We also have plenty of cover in defence and not many central midfielders. This way, we only have to play two of them.

So, to answer the question posed at the top of this article, yes, Jesse Lingard is good. Especially at the moment, he is the only real viable option in the number ten position. He also thrives in the 3-5-2 formation, as shown in the last two fixtures, which, in my opinion, is the tactic United should continue with. However, he’s not in that top tier of attacking midfielders in the world. It’s not a shock that we are being consistently linked with Ozil. I’m actually all for that signing, but I would hope it would be to replace Mata and Mkhitaryan, not Lingard. He very much deserves his place in the squad.

Oh, sorry, I know that the previous paragraph read like a conclusion but I’ve got to just touch on the dancing. Anyone who gets mad at someone expressing joy needs to have a word with themselves. I like that he gets to dance with his mates after scoring a goal. Plus I respect that he keeps with the times. I have absolutely no idea what that dance he did on Saturday was and that’s exactly why I loved it.

Wait, come back! I thought we could be friends!

Every week in this column, I’ll end with a ‘Jose Out’ rating. This is a rating out of 10 to show how much I would like him to be sacked. I’m not a fan of the man and haven’t been from the beginning, but I feel I should represent my feelings as they move from week to week. It’ll be a gauge to show how much you should hate me and how much of a traitor I am for ‘not supporting the team.’

Jose Out rating: 2/10. We’ve just beaten Arsenal in the most fun game of the season! I only have a dislike lingering from previous weeks at the moment. I’m sure this will skyrocket up after the derby.