Jesse Lingard is a lot of things. He is incredibly smart, hardworking, almost perfect when it comes to executing his tactical role, versatile, a savvy mover, a nifty finisher in and around the box, great at link-up play, and, in his humility and professionalism, an exemplary figure for all homegrown players who come through the ranks of big teams and want to carve out a role for themselves. What he is not, however, is good enough to be an important player for a club with Manchester United’s aspirations.
United hosted Burnley yesterday and suffered the same way they have too many times this season. After a set piece goal and an exquisite Steven Defour free kick, United found themselves down two goals in the first half against one of the best deep-defending teams in the Premier League. In response to finding his team down big and needing to get more attacking, José Mourinho put on Lingard at halftime, and the Englishman delivered. Lingard scored twice, hit the crossbar once, and was a central figure in most of United’s dangerous attacks after he came on. Ultimately the Red Devils had to settle for a point, which is a disappointing result for a theoretical title challenger when playing at home against the likes of Burnley, but could prove important in the dogfight that is the EPL’s scrap for a top-four place.
This was the third consecutive United match in which Lingard played a direct role in securing points for his club. Along with the equalizing brace he scored yesterday, Lingard assisted United’s first goal in what wound up a 2-2 draw against Leicester this past weekend, and he scored the second goal in a 2-1 win against West Brom in the match before that. These have been but a few of the impressive performances Lingard has provided United, and he’s arguably been their most consistent attacking midfield-type this season. His six goals and four assists in the league make him the team’s second-most productive player, behind only star striker Romelu Lukaku. As good as this prominent role has been for Lingard himself, though, that a player of his quality has played such a key role in United’s campaign speaks volumes about why United are not as good as they need to be if they want to win trophies.
In a squad with the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford—the former two of whom have in the recent past been the very best creative players in a couple of the best leagues in the world, the latter two of whom have already flashed the potential to hit similar world-elite heights—an admittedly talented and dedicated but limited player like Lingard should not be the one the team is forced to turn to regularly to score and set up goals. And even if you think Mkhitaryan’s and Mata’s best days are behind them and that Martial and Rashford remain a little too raw and unproven to be tasked with leading United to the titles their fans expect and their budget demands, the club would still need much, much better players than Lingard to play a big role in getting them there.
In an ideal world, Lingard would be at best the third- or fourth-best attacking midfield bench option for a truly world-class Man United squad. He’d be a reliable rotation player capable of giving the legitimately great players on the roster a breather here and there when the team faced weak competition. He’d be the kind of player Mourinho would bring off at halftime in favor of a better attacker when United somehow found themselves down two goals against a team like Burnley, not the one he’d put on in an effort to chase the game. He’d be a bit player, not a featured performer.
As popular (and as not totally unfair) as it is to point at Mourinho and laugh and laugh at his failure, at his hubris, and at his constant gesturing to his illustrious past as if that by itself absolves him of his underwhelming present, United’s current struggles aren’t entirely his fault. Sure, it is concerning that the manager hasn’t been able to establish and/or significantly improve more than a single flair-minded attacker since his return to the Premier League with Chelsea a few years ago (Eden Hazard’s development speaks well of Mourinho, but the stagnation of Martial and Rashford and the complete discarding of Mkhitaryan are fairly damning of his abilities as a coach of attackers), but especially at United, he doesn’t have all that much to work with. Not a single United attacker would start for the club’s big rivals across town, Manchester City, and Jesse Lingard probably wouldn’t have played half as much this year were he a Citizen rather than a Red Devil. United have invested heavily in attackers over the years, but the fact remains that they’ve failed to amass a cadre of elite players capable of challenging England’s best.
As long as Lingard is eating up big, important minutes for United, the team will not be able to recapture its glory days. So while it’s great for him that he’s been able to show off his commendable talents in so many big spots this season, every Lingard start, every time Mourinho turns to him to rescue a game, serves as evidence that United still aren’t good enough. What’s good for the player isn’t always what’s good for the club.