Jesse Lingard has never stopped playing like a kid in the park: always on the move, easily influenced by shouts from the stand, happy to try things that seem beyond his technical ability. Lingard, in many ways, is the antidote to the pessimism and entitlement that tends to surround the English football. On the back of his best season to date, the Manchester United academy graduate flies to Russia as the embodiment of optimism and having fun with football.
As a footballing nation, we create a paradox in which we’re the ones who struggle. Year after year, we cry out for new names in the national team and for an overhaul of deadwood. Then we throw our toys out of the pram when James Tarkowski rightly earns a call-up because his name isn’t glamorous enough. We want change but not that much change. Jesse Lingard personifies that – he’s still fairly new to the national side, yet he’s scored an FA Cup winning goal, won the Europa League and graduated from one of the most prestigious youth setups in world football. We also want maligned players to play together seamlessly, there are few duos more maligned than Man City’s Raheem Sterling (formerly of Liverpool) and United youth product Jesse Lingard, yet recent friendlies would suggest that the understanding between the pair will be key to England’s transition in Russia. He’s adaptable, and the importance of that can’t be overstated going into a tournament that could last three games and could last seven – especially with the World Cup offering such varying styles of opposition.
Unlike club and national team teammate Marcus Rashford, Lingard took the long route to establishing himself as a first-team player at Manchester United, impressing during loan spells at Derby County and Brighton before getting regular game time for United’s senior squad. Quite the contrast to Rashford’s Hollywood-esque rise, Lingard has been forced into situations over the last four years wherein he is required to prove himself to new managers over and over again – which he has excelled at. Going into the World Cup with minimal experience of representing England in a major tournament, the Warrington-born player finds himself in this situation once again, which bodes very well.
There are dozens of hard-working and tactically adaptable English players that won’t be considered by Gareth Southgate, but this season Lingard has morphed into much more than spirit and study – he’s turning into a truly elite footballer. In terms of Premier League goals, he’s tied on eight with Leroy Sane and Sadio Mane – who both play in fluid attacking teams whereas United have struggled to properly settle on a system. Crucially, he’s started scoring key goals, most notably two against Arsenal at the Emirates and the winner against Chelsea this season. He’s still prone to hitting absolute duds from twenty yards, but that’s something you have to accept with a late-blooming player who is still finding his range. He’s also improved tenfold this season in terms of his ability to keep the ball, with an 87% pass accuracy in the league compared to Paul Pogba‘s 84%. This is particularly impressive when you consider how many teams this year are trying to play out from the back and press aggressively higher up the pitch – he’s able to take the ball in tight spaces and either recycle position or drive forward, passing forward more
So, who does Lingard get in the starting eleven ahead of? Dele Alli. The Spurs youngster’s potential is undoubted, but you have to seriously question whether this World Cup has just come at the wrong time for him. He’s only managed to notch six goals in the league this season, two less than Lingard despite having played more and in a more attack-minded side, and England need to avoid relying entirely on Harry Kane to score. Alli’s season has been very much a stop-start one. He’s put in some performances with maturity beyond his years in the Champions League, but struggled to live up to his reputation across the Premier League campaign. Aside from form, Alli is without a trophy in his professional career, whereas Lingard has a League Cup, FA Cup and Europa League in the bag – you have to choose natural and proven winners in these cut-throat tournaments. Much has been said about Alli’s poor discipline, and the use of VAR in the competition could threaten Alli’s eligibility to play anyway, given his poor record of simulation.
A proven winner, a grafter and player who strikes the difficult balance between self-expression and pragmatism – Jesse Lingard should be one of the first names on the team sheet for that opening game against Tunisia on June 18th.