The first question put to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after Manchester United’s last-gasp FA Cup quarter-final win over Norwich City was not about Harry Maguire’s late winner or Odion Ighalo’s growing cult hero status but a player who had started for the first time since lockdown, put in a muted performance and had been substituted after little more than an hour.
Jesse Lingard was also a frequent topic of conversation in the pre-match briefing, following his absence from the squad against Sheffield United last Wednesday. Solskjaer said that was due to an illness and he promised Lingard would start at Carrow Road, but there were no similar guarantees on whether the 27-year-old would be signing a new contract at Old Trafford any time soon.
“Let’s see what the future will hold,” was all Solskjaer would say on the matter on Friday, despite the fact that Lingard could leave as a free agent in a year’s time or for a modest fee before then. United have an option to extend his existing terms by a further year but Lingard’s own manoeuvrings – like calling on Mino Raiola’s services, for example – suggest he is considering his options.
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When the subject of Lingard’s future was raised again on Saturday night, Solskjaer side-stepped the question, instead focusing on the benefits that United’s fringe players would feel from their run-out at Carrow Road. “I think Jesse and the others that haven’t played needed another game, needed minutes, needed to get their sharpness back and in that respect it’s worked out really well.”
To be fair, Lingard needs minutes. He has played just 1,777 in all competitions this season – fewer than any other United outfield player to have avoided a lengthy injury spell (bar late arrivals Bruno Fernandes and Ighalo), fewer than academy graduates Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams, and only a few hundred more than reserve goalkeeper Sergio Romero. If that is not an indication of where he is in Solskjaer’s thinking, what is?
And that reluctance to use him is understandable, given his miserable dry spell in front of goal over the last 18 months. Lingard has only scored twice and assisted twice this season. He has famously failed to score in the Premier League since the first game of Solskjaer’s caretaker spell in charge back in December 2018. He has failed to register a top-flight assist since the following January.
That is a poor record for any attacking midfielder, but those struggles have also fuelled a campaign of gratuitous criticism. Check the replies to his post-match tweet on Saturday evening, if you’re not aware of the embarrassing reaction that Lingard’s performances now generate. He was far from United’s worst player at Carrow Road – one nimble dance through Norwich’s defence was the closest the visitors came to scoring in the first half – but that does not seem to matter to his harshest critics.
And the focus on Lingard’s output threatens to overshadow much of the good work he does for Solskjaer’s side when given the opportunity. Lingard is United’s most active presser – harrying opponents more on average than any other member of the first-team squad during this season’s Premier League campaign – and the second-most successful at closing down the opposition, behind only Fred.
It is no fluke, either. Lingard has consistently been one of United’s busiest players off-the-ball over the last few seasons and has proved particularly useful further up the pitch. He presses more than any other United player in both the midfield and the final third. Only Mason Greenwood and Bruno Fernandes win more tackles high up the pitch on average than Lingard.
This is what Solskjaer wants, too. He has spoken regularly about his desire for his players to put opponents under pressure high up the pitch and, though their approach varies depending on the opposition, United are one of the Premier League’s most active pressing sides – less so than Liverpool and Manchester City, more so than Tottenham and Arsenal and the seventh-most overall.
That would suggest there is a role for Lingard somewhere, especially if he can start to produce the goals and assists which saw him establish himself as a regular starter under Jose Mourinho during the 2017-18 campaign. But is that role at Old Trafford? Would a return to form come easier if Lingard could enjoy a fresh start? He clearly has something to offer as a pressing forward, but – given how difficult the last year-and-a-half has been – perhaps not to Solskjaer’s United.
Lingard made his 200th appearance for the club shortly before lockdown, surpassing Dwight Yorke, Duncan Edwards and Eric Cantona among others. At the moment, you would not bet on him reaching his 250th. The questions on whether he will stay or go will keep coming during the remainder of this season and possibly even throughout the next, but they increasingly seem to have an obvious answer.
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