How Jesse Lingard’s rise from the ashes is the feel-good story of the season in the Premier League…
We all undoubtedly know who Jesse Lingard is at this point.
The English attacking midfielder has seemingly been in the world’s eye for years now, and not necessarily for the right reasons. The kid from Warrington, a boyhood Manchester United fan, had been in and around the first team at his boyhood club for nearly a decade now. He was living the dream that we all have as football fans, being able to play for the club you have supported your whole life. He was a kid with promise, another exciting talent to emerge from the Manchester United Academy during its heyday of talent production while Man United was on top of the world and winning silverware on a yearly basis.
It just never really happened for him, though.
Having had the unfortunate timing of becoming a first-team regular under the management of David Moyes, having narrowly missed out on the end of the Sir Alex Ferguson glory years, his first team emergence came at the most tumultuous time in the modern history of Man United. Maybe that impacted his development? Maybe it was other things? Maybe it was luck? But for whatever reason, it just did not ever really come together for Lingard. There were highs, such as his FA Cup-winning goal against Crystal Palace in 2016 or his “Emirates Dance Floor” performances against Arsenal, but there were also many lows.
Despite being one of the few people in football that Jose Mourinho liked, he struggled for consistency in performance under the Portuguese manager. Things did not change under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, as it notably took him until the final day of the 2019-20 season to register any goal involvement, scoring United’s second goal in a 2-0 win over Leicester City. He had become a meme for several years, always being the “perennially young promising player” despite being 28 and well into the prime of his career. His dancing at the Emirates was also memed, almost as an act of derision toward Arsenal, a sign that they should be embarrassed.
“How could you let Jesse Lingard score against you? He is a better dancer than he is a footballer and you made him look like Eric Cantona.”
He dealt with family issues that affected his mental health and performances on the pitch. He dealt with the ridicule and pressure that comes with playing for Man United. He was living his dream, but it seemed to be weighing him down at times. Fans often waited for the day when they could move on from Lingard and bring in a better player. The 2019-20 season was brutal for him, and it was sad for me to see him still trying but knowing what he was dealing with.
Things did not improve at the beginning of this season, not even featuring once for a United team that overcame a rocky start to be in title contention for a time. He was allowed to leave the club on loan in January 2021, reuniting with David Moyes at overachieving West Ham until the end of the season. And, well, the numbers speak for themselves.
In nine games in claret and blue, Lingard has tallied eight goals and three assists. A phenomenal return, beyond anything that anyone expected when he moved to East London. He went from not even in the team at United to a focal point of a West Ham side that could be playing in the Champions League next season. He went from afterthought to an England international once again, returning to the England team for the first time since 2019 and probably ensuring he will be in the team for the European Championships this summer. He went from a player that was constantly memed and ridiculed to one that inspires and excites and dazzles. A player that is, at least on form, one of the best players in the Premier League at the moment. He has gone from a player who United fans wanted gone to one that even Vikram thinks has a place in the United team going forward.
It is such an incredible story, one that we all deserve this season. In a season where COVID’s effects on the football world cannot be ignored, one where racist abuse of footballers through social media has become a distressingly regular occurrence, one where, in football terms, the Premier League has the least exciting title race of any of the “Top Five” major leagues in Europe, we get one of the best redemption stories in the last few years. We see a free Jesse Lingard, one not weighed down by the baggage he picked up in Manchester and playing with a joy and freedom we have not seen from him in quite some time.
That might be the best part of this, he just looks happier. Now, I do not know Jesse Lingard. I have never met him, never spoke to him, and do not know anyone associated with him, so I do not really truly know what goes on inside his head. From an outsider’s view, however, it seemed that he just was not in a good place in Manchester. The weight of the ridicule and expectation, on top of everything else he was dealing with in life at the time, was visibly weighing him down. For West Ham, he plays as if a massive weight was lifted off of his shoulders. As an outside observer, I can see a different sense of joy and spark of competitive fire in him, and it is wonderful to see because I really like Lingard. Again, I do not know him, and you can say what you want about how talented he is as a player, but he has always come off as a very likable person. His personality is infectious and it does make him quite a likable player. Seeing him succeed and playing with this sense of joy and freedom is fun to watch.
Life, more often than not, gives people second chances, and no area of life loves second chances and redemption stories quite like the sports world. After dealing with years of inconsistency, pressure, and ridicule in Manchester, Lingard was handed his second chance with West Ham. He has the ability to play free of pressure and show his talent to the world. His redemption story is happening right in front of our eyes, and it is lovely to see, regardless of who you support.
Which begs the question: what happens next?
Lingard’s United contract expires at the end of next season. United fans, once looking forward to moving Lingard’s wage off of the books, are now wondering whether he might be a useful player in their team moving forward. Bruno Fernandes is a central but often overworked creative attacking player in the United team, and with questions surrounding the future of Paul Pogba and Solskjær’s incredible, resilient insistence to not play Donny van de Beek, Lingard becomes at least an interesting squad player to help rest Fernandes, if not a player who can play alongside him in the first team. A return to his boyhood club to be a central role in this United team could be the ultimate ending to Lingard’s redemption arc, but does he want to come back?
I can understand the desire for him to return to Manchester, especially considering he is a Man United supporter, but him staying away is also attractive. He could stay at West Ham, where he might be playing a central role in the Champions League next season for a team that is surprisingly quite exciting and potent in attack. He might not have the ability to be this central to the team should he return to United. West Ham is also not the only option. Reports from ESPN, also shared by the BBC, state that PSG, Real Madrid, and Inter Milan are all scouting Lingard and monitoring his contract situation with an eye toward making a move for the Englishman in the summer. That is a bit staggering, right? If you told me a year ago that Real Madrid and PSG would be scouting Jesse Lingard, I would have thought you were insane.
Now, we all know that most transfer stories are not entirely true. Even with a reputable source like ESPN, the vast majority of transfer stories end up dissipating or being much ado about nothing. There could be no interest from any of these clubs, but I had an immediate reaction to seeing that report: a move to Inter makes a whole lot of sense.
For those who have not kept track of the Nerazzurri this season, they are having a very good time. On the cusp of winning their first league title since 2010 and with Juventus faltering, Antonio Conte is at a turning point where he could elevate Inter back to the top of the Italian game once again. Despite this, and despite the talent available to Conte, they could be moving toward some changes in midfield. Nicolò Barella and Marcelo Brozović are clear fixtures in the team, but there could be some changes around them. For example, Inter are linked with AZ Alkmaar defensive midfielder Teun Koopmeiners as a potential replacement for Arturo Vidal or Roberto Gagliardini and eventual heir to Brozović. A move for a more attacking-minded midfielder like Lingard makes sense, especially with continued questions around Christian Eriksen’s future at the club and how much of the creative attacking burden can be left to Barella and the wingbacks. Lingard coming in as an attacking midfielder, even as a rotational player, is an interesting prospect and makes sense for Inter to do. He is also close friends with former United and current Inter striker Romelu Lukaku, so that is an added benefit.
Ultimately, this is all good for Lingard. He has new life in his career, one that could lead to a big move or a big return to Manchester. This is probably still a good thing for United, as well. Lingard would be a very useful rotational player, but if he does not want to play that role, then they should allow him to move. They are still going to get a good transfer fee for a player that they initially thought they would have to wait until his contract expired to get him off the books. This provides help, albeit not much, for United in order to make signings this summer to push them toward contention.
But at the end of the day, after we consider all of the future moves and ramifications, we can just sit back and enjoy a great story. In a season full of turmoil, fitness issues, and cast under the shadow of a colossal health pandemic, we need to cling onto the feel-good stories, and this is definitely one of them.
Jesse Lingard is enjoying his football again, and I, like many others, am enjoying watching him.
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