Often a figure of derision during his early career at Manchester United, manchild Jesse Lingard has grown up this season and is now a vital player for Jose Mourinho
In most people’s eyes, Jesse Lingard would be better suited to a career as a millennial age internet influencer or dance choreographer rather than a professional footballer.
And for much of his early career, #JLingz, as he has dubbed himself on social media, never seemed like he would make it at Manchester United or even as a Premier League player.
Flimsily built, inconsistent performances, erratic in front of goal, chastised by the majority of fans – even at his own club.
He seemed destined to join the ranks of myriad players cut adrift from Old Trafford in their early 20s, consigned to the ‘not quite good enough’ bin.
But unlike Tom Cleverley, Kieran Richardson and Guiseppe Rossi, the season of his life has seen Lingard propel himself from the ‘useful squad player/good option off the bench’ basket into a key component of Jose Mourinho’s first team.
It’s form that is likely to see him play a significant role for England at this summer’s World Cup.
When the Warrington-born midfielder returned to the club from the last of his four loan spells at Derby County three seasons ago, the start of the 2015/16 campaign felt like a significant one.
Lingard had starred for the Rams, Brighton and particularly Birmingham City – where he scored all four goals, including a 13-minute first-half hat-trick, on his debut in a 4-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday in September 2013.
But his form in front of goal wasn’t replicated back at United where he started to impose himself on the senior set-up, but nevertheless scored just six and five times respectively in 2015/16 and 2016/17.
But this term he has caught fire, his all-round game improving dramatically. His spacial awareness, movement, distribution and intelligence all show marked improvement, not to mention his goalscoring – he has netted 13 times in 40 games in all competitions, as well as bagging four Premier League assists.
Lingard has been earning plaudits all season and after setting up Alexis Sanchez‘s goal and generally starring in Saturday’s 2-0 defeat of Swansea, he revealed Sir Alex Ferguson told him he would realise his potential by the age of 25 – Lingard turned 25 just before Christmas.
Former United defender Rio Ferdinand, commentating on the game for BT Sport, showered him with praise, claiming: “He (Lingard) could have played in our era, my team, he would have been involved in that team.”
In a post-Ferguson era where United’s play has become static under plodding and ponderous managers David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and even Mourinho, Lingard’s chameleon-like adaptability, boundless energy, quick feet and quicker thinking have been a welcome addition to the Portuguese’s defence-first strategy.
For someone so slight of build, Lingard’s development into a true talent, in light of such harsh criticism during his formative years, has been mightily impressive.
Lingard splits opinion among football fans like no other. He’s a huge presence on social media, posting regular videos on Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter, usually poking fun at friend and United and England team-mate Marcus Rashford.
However, strip back the aura of him being a manchild who doesn’t appear to want to grow up, Lingard’s truly proved the doubters wrong this season by developing into a mature player and growing into the United first team against all odds.
Establishing himself under Van Gaal during 2015/16, featuring in 40 games having made just one appearance the season before, a 23-year-old Lingard must have feared the worst when Mourinho was appointed to replace the Dutchman in May 2016.
For a player who spends an inordinate amount of his day conjuring up goal celebration routines with Paul Pogba, Lingard might have expected Mourinho to waltz him right out of the Old Trafford exit door.
But in stark contrast to his reputation of being a killer of young careers, the former Chelsea coach has brought on a number of young talents during his early tenure as Red Devils boss.
Scott McTominay and Rashford are proof of that. But Lingard’s stellar progress has stood out above all others.
Mourinho has moulded and nurtured a player who always possessed undoubted talent, but appeared such an awkward and frustrating conundrum for previous coaches to figure out.
Despite a promising beginning to 2017/18, Lingard’s future at United was again brought into question when the club acquired Sanchez in January.
It was a signing that realistically didn’t need to be made, yet instantly upgraded United’s attack. With Romelu Lukaku, Rashford, Anthony Martial and Sanchez as a mouthwatering front four prospect, Lingard looked likely to linger in the shadows.
Sanchez, however, faded after a promising start and Mourinho has once again turned to versatile Lingard to provide the dynamism in recent weeks.
Often shunted out wide where his energy, trickery and guile are used as excuses to keep him away from the middle, Lingard has flourished. Yet it is centrally, in the number 10 position, where his best displays usually originate.
Ironically, it was Lingard’s pace and vision that set Sanchez through to rifle in a first goal from open play for United in 11 appearances.
Someone who was expected to make way for the Chile star, Lingard has been United’s hottest outfield player this season.
There is a serious debate to be had now about whether a player of diminutive stature, but with heart and strength of a lion, starts for the Three Lions this summer in Russia.
Some of sport’s greatest feats are achieved through tackling adversity and Lingard’s emergence is a testament to his character as well as being yet another shining example of a local lad persevering to make the grade at United.
For a player renowned for promoting his private life via Snapchat videos and Instagram stories, Lingard is belatedly turning his career into an impressive highlights reel.