Manchester United’s recent victories over Chelsea and Crystal Palace suggested Jose Mourinho has finally settled on his strongest starting line-up.
There are plenty of caveats: Eric Bailly has not yet returned to full fitness while six first-team squad members remained side-lined with various injuries. However, the same starting XI was fielded in both games with the exception of Jesse Lingard replacing Anthony Martial, who was ill for the trip to Selhurst Park.
The Warrington-native has enjoyed a stellar season to date, netting 13 goals in all competitions and hitting the best vein of form in his career to date. Sir Alex Ferguson once tipped the fleet-forward forward as a potential ‘late bloomer’ and such a forecast has rung true.
The attacking midfielder has forged a reputation as an effective squad player across the past three seasons, while occasionally offering decisive moments – most notably his strikers in the FA Cup and League Cup finals at Wembley.
Against the odds
In many ways, the 25-year-old has made it against all the odds at Old Trafford.
Since his debut in 2015 the club have moved to sign an array of expensive attacking stars including Memphis Depay, Anthony Martial, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, while Marcus Rashford’s rise to stardom must not be forgotten. Lingard has also seen off other offensive talents Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney.
Indeed, Lingard’s presence in the starting line-up at Crystal Palace saw Sanchez move to the left, in place of Martial, and it has since been highlighted the Chilean and Pogba were occupying much of the same space, leaving the side unbalanced and the individual performances comfortably below par.
The Englishman offers qualities that few others in United’s hugely capable squad have with his main asset being his off-the-ball movement and link-up play.
He ghosted in unmarked to head home the winner against Chelsea the previous week and both his cup final goals came as he found crucial space on the edge of the box.
His versatility is key too, as he was switched to right-back as United fell two goals behind and played a part in the stirring comeback.
It his tactical qualities rather than his technical ones which make Lingard so valued by Mourinho with his unselfishness and adaptability key in a squad role, yet his confidence and ability have both visibly improved this season.
The England international shone over the Christmas period – netting five goals in seven appearances including stunning strikes against Everton and Derby, alongside two strikes to rescue a point at home to Burnley. It was he who stepped up when other, more expensive stars did not.
The conundrum for Mourinho is how mid-season signing Sanchez can begin to thrive in the side and how to maintain the talented yet occasionally Martial in the same side, while maintaining a place for Lingard.
Manchester United have different types of attackers – Juan Mata provides calmness and composure in attack while Rashford offers raw pace and directness.
Lingard has more than just one part to play in United’s future and the club will hope he can continue to plug the gaps in a team which can often become disjointed while his ascension over the past 12 months should be commended.
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