Joker in the pack Jesse Lingard could well be Pep Guardiola's biggest headache against Manchester United
Before this week, Jesse Lingard’s only goals for Manchester United this season had come in the Carabao Cup, against Burton Albion and Swansea City, in games that have already been largely forgotten. He looked like a player towards the bottom end of United’s pecking order, having only started one Premier League game this season for Jose Mourinho, and that one being the 2-1 defeat at Huddersfield Town.
But this has been the most remarkable week for the 24-year-old midfielder. On Tuesday night he was back in the team and one of the stars of an impressive 4-2 win at Watford. Just when Marco Silva’s side were coming back into the game, his slaloming run and low finish put Watford away, capping an evening of energetic focused play.
So Mourinho stuck with Lingard for Saturday’s game at the Emirates. He felt that the 3-5-2 system, with Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial through the middle, needed an extra runner from midfield. And who better than Lingard to do that, whose pace and game-awareness make him a natural counter-attacker.
It worked perfectly. Lingard made and scored United’s second goal, hassling the ball from Shkodran Mustafi and breaking forward, receiving Martial’s flick, bearing down on goal and beating Petr Cech. It was a goal that a player without his speed, enthusiasm or anticipation could not have scored.
The more men Arsenal threw forward, the more space there was for Lingard to break into. He nearly scored his second at the start of the second half, his shot deflected onto the bar, but he did not have to wait too much longer. Again, racing down the middle of the pitch with the ball, he set up a counter-attack, and when Pogba put a low cross in, Lingard was there to convert. He had not scored in the Premier League since March so to get two at Arsenal was quite an achievement.
Mourinho was delighted afterwards with Lingard’s contribution which went exactly to plan. “He played well,” Mourinho said in his post-match press conference. “He did what the team needed him to do, defensively and also in terms of going into finishing areas.”
Mourinho pointed out that when he goes to the 3-5-2, he needs players to give him what Lingard did last night. “We worked hard in pre-season about playing sometimes with three at the back, sometimes four,” he said. “When we play with two strikers [3-5-2] we need people from the midfield that can arrive in finishing situations and that's what Jesse did for us.”
There will be games at home when United are playing against a deep defence when they will not need Lingard, instead going for a more creative or technical player. But when United are playing on the break, countering with speed, a player like Lingard is perfect. He outshone Pogba in midfield today and when United face Manchester City next weekend, he is one of the players Pep Guardiola will have to be most aware of.