Saturday 20 January 2018

Aidan O'Hara: Jesse Lingard’s new United deal says more about club than player

'Lingard has an FA Cup final winning goal to his name and while that and being a home-grown player should earn him a degree of affection among United supporters, it doesn’t make him good enough to be playing at the level at which United aspire to be.' Photo credit: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
'Lingard has an FA Cup final winning goal to his name and while that and being a home-grown player should earn him a degree of affection among United supporters, it doesn’t make him good enough to be playing at the level at which United aspire to be.' Photo credit: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

In his first few seasons at Manchester United, Antonio Valencia was a hard-running, physical right-winger who loved nothing more than a quick jink near the end line followed by a cross lashed low into the box to nobody in particular.

Attempts to convert him into a right-back by both David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal often looked promising but were undone by his tendency to lose concentration in either marking or positioning, and if his pace didn't get him out of trouble, his team would be in it.

Perhaps Valencia's role as one of the few consistently high performers in United's season is what Jose Mourinho had in mind when it came to offering Jesse Lingard a new four-year deal.

That he is going to be paid £100,000 a week is largely irrelevant to the conversation but the greater mystery is what exactly he has done to be a player Mourinho feels will help United get beyond the point where reaching the top four or winning the Europa League is deemed an achievement.

During the game against Everton last Tuesday, this column tweeted about trying to figure out what kind of player Lingard was, and the most succinct response was "a Villa one".

A player's ability is usually described in comparison to what has gone before but Lingard, for most people, seems a player beyond compare. And not in a good way.

He doesn't seem to be a winger in either the mould of a young Ryan Giggs flying down the touchline, or the older version who knitted play together. He's not a prolific striker like Ibrahimovic, an all-action player like Rooney at his best or someone who will paint pictures with his passes like David Silva.

All of which begs the question, what does he do?

The word that keeps being mentioned around Lingard is 'potential' and while players can always improve, at 24, Lingard should already be showing more.

Philippe Coutinho, for example, is only six months older than Lingard but would probably get into any team in the Premier League, while the two highest scorers, Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku, are 18 months younger.

All three have certainly have potential to improve but Lingard has a serious amount of work to do to get to the level those three are currently at.

At United, he is in the team ahead of Anthony Martial, a player who has been out of form this season but one who, in theory at least, is three years behind Lingard in terms of his development.

Many would argue that Martial is already a better option than Lingard but, if he only developed to the level where Lingard is at now by the time he turns 24 in three years' time, it seems unlikely that United would be rushing to offer him a new four-year deal.

It's a similar story with Marcus Rashford, whose progress at United has stagnated somewhat this season but, at 19, five years younger than Lingard, he certainly has the ability to improve significantly.

Proud

Like Rashford, Lingard came through the ranks at United and while the club are justifiably proud of having had a home-developed player in every match since October 30, 1937, it seemed a little more than barrel scraping when Mourinho was explaining why Lingard had been given a new deal.

"Because of his age and because of his happiness in the work, I think he has conditions to be even better," explained Mourinho.

"Apart from that, English, made in the academy - very important for the club these players made at home - so it is a very important contract."

Lingard was part of the last group of home-grown players to win a Youth Cup for United in 2011 but even though they were all "made at home", United got rid of every one of the outfield players apart from Lingard because they were deemed to be not good enough.

Sean McGinty was the last player shown the door by Alex Ferguson and now plays for Torquay; Gyliano van Velzen is at Roda JC; goalkeeper Sam Johnstone is onto his ninth loan without having played a game for United; Tom Thorpe is on loan at Bolton from Rotherham; Michael Keane is doing well at Burnley; Ryan Tunnicliffe is on loan at Wigan from Fulham; Ravel Morrison is at QPR; Will Keane is playing very little at Hull; and Michele Fornasier is back home in Italy with Pescara.

Read more: Mourinho finally finds some praise for Shaw

The other member of that team who wasn't deemed good enough, Paul Pogba, cost United €100m to get back.

Lingard has also been a little unlucky with the timing of his emergence, coming in United's least successful period for the past 25 years. Ferguson's years were characterised by a relentless determination to keep winning, driven by the likes of Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona and Roy Keane, who set a standard of excellence that became the norm.

Lingard's first appearance in a United squad came - alongside Pogba - as an unused substitute in 2012 in a team that contained Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Giggs and Wayne Rooney but, as the post-Ferguson malaise set in, so the dressing-room leaders disappeared.

The last generation of young players at United were dragged up to the standard of senior pros but it's in the vacuum of their absence where Lingard has now earned a deal that will set quite the benchmark if a decent 24-year-old can earn £100,000-a-week.

Lingard has an FA Cup final winning goal to his name and while that and being a home-grown player should earn him a degree of affection among United supporters, it doesn't make him good enough to be playing at the level at which United aspire to be.

Nobody would turn down the kind of deal Lingard has just signed but, leaving aside the debate whether he's worth it or not, it's a deal that says more about the club than it does about the player.

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