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Dissecting football teams into isolated departments might be convenient for the purpose of analysis, but out there on the turf they are far more fluid and amorphous. Players who make these transitions in shape slicker and stitch play together are often more important than their raw, top-line statistics suggest.
Jesse Lingard is one such player. Manchester United always look a more cohesive outfit when he plays, even though a starting role tends to come at the expense of a more 'talented' option. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has installed Lingard at the heart of his first-choice Premier League attack, where he has helped to bridge the yawning ravine that existed between United's central midfield and forwards under Jose Mourinho. He scored in United's 3-1 FA Cup victory at Arsenal and fulfilled a crucial tactical function in their win against Spurs at Wembley. When rested against Burnley on Tuesday, United stuttered to their first dropped points under Solskjaer.
With four goals and two assists in the Premier League this season, Lingard is unlikely to trouble the judges of any individual prizes but his coaches and supporters will know his importance. Weaving his way across the pitch to receive the ball in undetectable pockets of space, or to ghost into goalscoring positions, Lingard often does his best work without the ball. These contributions do not always add to his quantitative tally of end product, but do propel United forward and create chaos for others to thrive.
Arsene Wenger once described Robert Pires as the 'oil in the engine' of Arsenal's successful teams at the beginning of the century. Thierry Henry was the team's goalscorer, Dennis Bergkamp its chief creator and Patrick Vieira its dominant personality, but whenever Pires was absent Arsenal never quite had the same smoothness. A scheming left-sided midfielder whose influence extended beyond chalk on boots, Pires possessed near surgical grace, like a ballet dancer wielding a scalpel.
It would be unjust and disproportionate to draw direct comparisons, but Lingard too has a knack for creeping up on a game from its extremities to make timely incisions in opposition defences. Lingard has a well-rounded set of attributes: he travel with the ball at his feet, make penetrative runs without it, presses tirelessly, can shoot from distance and finish simpler chances cooly.
His one outstanding quality however, is his tactical intelligence. Put simply, he knows where to be on the pitch and where to go next. A telling contrast is with Ross Barkley or Jack Wilshere, two English midfielders with more magic in their feet as teenagers, but who often struggle to tune into a game's wavelength (notwithstanding injury problems).
Whether through instruction or intuition, Lingard seems to have a far superior 'feel' for games. This may be why several coaches have trusted him in blue-chip games against 'Big Six' rivals. It is only speculation, but one wonders if these cerebral attributes were developed to compensate for his delayed physical development as a youngster.
As Lingard revealed in a piece for The Players' Tribune: "I always knew my size was going to be a challenge. Even as I got older, I was still swimming in my kit. There’s this photo of me from the Nike Cup, and my brother always laughs about it. We’re playing A.S. Roma. I’m 15, looking like I’m 10. And these Italian lads are 15, looking like they’re 25."
This is the reason young players need to be given longer to develop in the game...— Monkwearmouth Football Academy (@MonkwearmouthFA) 28 January 2019
A game between Roma & Manchester United Under 16 age group ⚽️
The player with the huge physical disadvantage...
Jesse Lingard 👏🏻 pic.twitter.com/RrtrIOQ2V5
Spotting the academy players with blistering speed or physical dominance is straightforward, but they often hit a wall when they lose their competitive advantage at men's level. To the immense credit of Sir Alex Ferguson and United, they recognised Lingard's potential, sitting down the player and his family to explain that it might take until 23 or 24 before he cracked the first team. It was an unerringly prescient forecast.
Lingard is also ideally suited to his time - not quite a central midfielder, nor a traditional playmaker or No.10, but a multi-functional advanced midfielder who contributes to both defence and attack. Kevin De Bruyne used the term 'free eight' to categorise his role at Manchester City, and you could settle on worse in Lingard's case. He has completed an average of 27.90 passes per league game this season, so is not a ball-hungry, creative force.
Rather, he comes alive in transitions - in those moments after United regain possession and in the few seconds after they lose it. Lingard's low-touch style is shared by Dele Alli, who also offers a very modern interpretation of the role. It is why the pair can look an awkward fit in the same England midfield. Lingard's rise has come at the expense of Juan Mata, who has experienced a drift to the margins approximate to fellow left-footed chance creators Mesut Ozil and James Rodriguez. All share abundant gifts, but who slow games to their rhythm.
Winning hearts and minds was Solskjaer's first task when he arrived at United, but he has also made clever tactical alterations with Lingard at the heart of things. United's midfield is now staggered not square, almost forming a lop-sided 4-2-2-2. Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic sit deep and alternate dropping wide of the two centre-backs, Lingard and Paul Pogba fill the spaces higher up behind Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial who are happy operating in wide areas. The relationship between Pogba and Martial gives United's attack a left-sided bias, with Lingard required to burst into the space they vacate.
How sustainable these short-term improvements are remains to be seen, and will decide whether Solsjkaer stands a chance of keeping the job on a permanent basis. Whoever is in charge at Old Trafford next season though, Lingard will be a player they can count on. Like the gin in the Campari or cream in the coffee, he brings everything together and United never quite seem like United without him.