In most people’s eyes, Jesse Lingard would be better suited to a career as a millennial age internet influencer or dance choreographer rather than a professional footballer.
And for much of his early career, #JLingz, as he has dubbed himself on social media, never seemed like he would make it at Manchester United or even as a Premier League player.
Flimsily built, inconsistent performances, erratic in front of goal, chastised by the majority of fans – even at his own club.
He seemed destined to join the ranks of myriad players cut adrift from Old Trafford in their early 20s, consigned to the ‘not quite good enough’ bin.
But unlike Tom Cleverley, Kieran Richardson and Guiseppe Rossi, the season of his life has seen Lingard propel himself from the ‘useful squad player/good option off the bench’ basket into a key component of Jose Mourinho’s first team.
It’s form that is likely to see him play a significant role for England at this summer’s World Cup.
When the Warrington-born midfielder returned to the club from the last of his four loan spells at Derby County three seasons ago, the start of the 2015/16 campaign felt like a significant one.
Lingard had starred for the Rams, Brighton and particularly Birmingham City – where he scored all four goals, including a 13-minute first-half hat-trick, on his debut in a 4-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday in September 2013.
But his form in front of goal wasn’t replicated back at United where he started to impose himself on the senior set-up, but nevertheless scored just six and five times respectively in 2015/16 and 2016/17.
But this term he has caught fire, his all-round game improving dramatically. His spacial awareness, movement, distribution and intelligence all show marked improvement, not to mention his goalscoring – he has netted 13 times in 40 games in all competitions, as well as bagging four Premier League assists.
Lingard has been earning plaudits all season and after setting up Alexis Sanchez‘s goal and generally starring in Saturday’s 2-0 defeat of Swansea, he revealed Sir Alex Ferguson told him he would realise his potential by the age of 25 – Lingard turned 25 just before Christmas.
Former United defender Rio Ferdinand, commentating on the game for BT Sport, showered him with praise, claiming: “He (Lingard) could have played in our era, my team, he would have been involved in that team.”
In a post-Ferguson era where United’s play has become static under plodding and ponderous managers David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and even Mourinho, Lingard’s chameleon-like adaptability, boundless energy, quick feet and quicker thinking have been a welcome addition to the Portuguese’s defence-first strategy.
For someone so slight of build, Lingard’s development into a true talent, in light of such harsh criticism during his formative years, has been mightily impressive.
Lingard splits opinion among football fans like no other. He’s a huge presence on social media, posting regular videos on Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter, usually poking fun at friend and United and England team-mate Marcus Rashford.
However, strip back the aura of him being a manchild who doesn’t appear to want to grow up, Lingard’s truly proved the doubters wrong this season by developing into a mature player and growing into the United first team against all odds.
Establishing himself under Van Gaal during 2015/16, featuring in 40 games having made just one appearance the season before, a 23-year-old Lingard must have feared the worst when Mourinho was appointed to replace the Dutchman in May 2016.
For a player who spends an inordinate amount of his day conjuring up goal celebration routines with Paul Pogba, Lingard might have expected Mourinho to waltz him right out of the Old Trafford exit door.
But in stark contrast to his reputation of being a killer of young careers, the former Chelsea coach has brought on a number of young talents during his early tenure as Red Devils boss.
Scott McTominay and Rashford are proof of that. But Lingard’s stellar progress has stood out above all others.
Mourinho has moulded and nurtured a player who always possessed undoubted talent, but appeared such an awkward and frustrating conundrum for previous coaches to figure out.
Despite a promising beginning to 2017/18, Lingard’s future at United was again brought into question when the club acquired Sanchez in January.
It was a signing that realistically didn’t need to be made, yet instantly upgraded United’s attack. With Romelu Lukaku, Rashford, Anthony Martial and Sanchez as a mouthwatering front four prospect, Lingard looked likely to linger in the shadows.
Sanchez, however, faded after a promising start and Mourinho has once again turned to versatile Lingard to provide the dynamism in recent weeks.
Often shunted out wide where his energy, trickery and guile are used as excuses to keep him away from the middle, Lingard has flourished. Yet it is centrally, in the number 10 position, where his best displays usually originate.
Ironically, it was Lingard’s pace and vision that set Sanchez through to rifle in a first goal from open play for United in 11 appearances.
Someone who was expected to make way for the Chile star, Lingard has been United’s hottest outfield player this season.
There is a serious debate to be had now about whether a player of diminutive stature, but with heart and strength of a lion, starts for the Three Lions this summer in Russia.
Some of sport’s greatest feats are achieved through tackling adversity and Lingard’s emergence is a testament to his character as well as being yet another shining example of a local lad persevering to make the grade at United.
For a player renowned for promoting his private life via Snapchat videos and Instagram stories, Lingard is belatedly turning his career into an impressive highlights reel.
Dele Alli will win back England boss Gareth Southgate’s trust with more showstopping turns like his goal brace at Chelsea, according to Mauricio Pochettino.
Alli provided the perfect riposte to being omitted from England’s 1-1 draw with Italy by firing two goals as Tottenham claimed their win at Stamford Bridge since 1990 on Sunday.
Christian Eriksen’s long-range bullet and Alli’s double secured Spurs’ 3-1 win in west London, that all-but tied up Tottenham’s fourth-place Premier League finish and Champions League qualification.
Spurs boss Pochettino admitted Alli had faced a “tough period” in not featuring for England against Italy – but insisted he never doubted the 21-year-old’s ability to bounce back.
“Dele is not going to be affected if he plays or doesn’t play,” said Pochettino, of Alli.
“He’s got a great character, he’s so strong, he’s a fighter; very competitive.
“He’s not going to be affected, but then we have to help him.
“If he doesn’t play for the international team he needs to fight and win trust and confidence again.
“The only way to do that is doing what he did today. Scoring goals and the performance he did today.
“I’m very, very pleased, it was a tough period for him: but for me I have no doubt over his talent, his character, and I am so happy for him because he deserved it, worked hard.
“He’s a great talent, only 21, and sometimes we lose focus on that.
“Sometimes the expectation is too much, and pressure on his shoulders.
“He doesn’t need to show anything to us, because we trust and believe in him.”
Spurs’ first win at Stamford Bridge in 31 matches in all competitions has surely inched Pochettino’s men over the line for the Premier League’s final Champions League qualification berth.
The former Southampton manager insisted Spurs cannot take anything for granted however, despite boasting an eight-point advantage over Chelsea with seven matches to play.
“There is still a long way to the end, we need to be focused,” said Pochettino.
“I think there is still nothing achieved, and I’m sure it will be difficult to finish in the top four.”
Chelsea boss Antonio Conte refused to give up the fight for Champions League qualification, but admitted the Blues have everything to do to reverse their current predicament.
Asked if any chance of overhauling Tottenham had now gone, Conte replied: “I don’t know. I don’t know.
“We had a great chance to close the gap with Tottenham, and we lost this chance.”
Tottenham brushed off the absence of Harry Kane to banish painful past memories of Stamford Bridge and earn a come from behind 3-1 win at Chelsea – a maiden victory in west London in nearly three decades and a significant victory in the race for Champions League football.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side cemented their grip on fourth place and opened up an eight-point gap to the Blues in fifth – taking a major step towards qualifying for the Champions League next season while at the same time effectively ending Chelsea’s chances of playing among Europe’s elite.
CHELSEA’S SEASON AND CONTE’S FUTURE ON LIFE SUPPORT
Antonio Conte refused to be drawn post-match on whether he’d be in charge at Stamford Bridge next season. But it’s abundantly clear to all that he won’t be.
He was hailed a king when turning around the debacle of the disastrous 10th-place finish in 2015/16 with a Premier League win the following year – the Blues fifth title and second highest points tally (93) in league history.
To then follow that with failure to finish inside the top four is unforgiveable. With seven games to go, Chelsea are six points better off than the paltry 50 they managed overall in Jose Mourinho’s final season, but 47 shy of last season’s title-winning total.
Having attained messiah status in his debut campaign, Conte has overseen a mess this term, with his side’s drop in form setting off alarm bells in west London.
It is Tottenham that have form for crumbling in the big games but they stood tall here and were particularly impressive, especially when faced with such a blistering start from the home side.
Chelsea dominated the first half and seized the initiative through Alvaro Morata’s opening goal. But they then surrendered the initiative and had little answer as Spurs surged through the gears in the second half.
King Conte’s rapid coronation will be followed just as quickly by his dethroning.
WILL EARNING CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FOOTBALL MEAN A SUCCESSFUL SEASON FOR SPURS?
After Manchester City, Tottenham play the best brand of attacking football in England, perhaps one of most attractive in Europe. But it’s getting to the stage now where that has to translate into results and, more importantly, trophies.
For all their fans’ berating of north London rivals Arsenal’s recent travails, the much-maligned Arsene Wenger has still fired the Gunners to three FA Cup triumphs in four years.
Pochettino has been in situ at White Hart Lane for the same amount of time and, in terms of silverware, has nothing to show for it.
Spurs are undoubtedly moving forward under his guidance and while the relative inactivity in the transfer window garnered attention last summer, Pochettino instead chose to focus on developing what he had.
Retaining the crux of a very talented squad, and improving from within, cannot be overlooked.
But they must now take the next step. They challenged for the title in 2015/16 but fell away alarmingly and somehow finished third in a two-horse race.
They’ve also failed to turn their panache into progress on the continent – something they will likely get to rectify next season with the Stamford Bridge win seeing them take a huge step towards qualifying for next year’s Champions League.
Finishing in the top four, ahead of Chelsea and Arsenal, would be a feat. But silverware of some sort must follow next season.
ERIKSEN IS EVER-RELIABLE
Once asked to name his best Manchester United XI, Sir Alex Ferguson famously said of left-back Denis Irwin: “I called him an eight out of 10. I would say Denis Irwin would be the one certainty to get in the team.”
The affable Irishman was Mr Reliable, the perennial 8/10 player, a man who never let anyone down.
Add in a tad more style, substance, goalscoring prowess and playmaking ability, and you could say the same of Christian Eriksen.
Tottenham have the best striker in England in Harry Kane and an embarrassment of attacking riches in Dele Alli, Son Heung-min and Erik Lamela.
But Eriksen is the metronome that makes them tick and is arguably the team’s best and most vital player.
Even when it appears he’s having a quiet game, he can still affect proceedings, with either a special strike, mesmerising piece of skill or sublime pass to unlock a defence.
Two of these bookmarked his 90 minutes, his venomous equaliser was the turning point for Tottenham and he played a killer ball through to Son which in turn led to the game-clinching third goal for Alli.
Like Irwin, the dynamic Dane is Tottenham’s Mr Reliable, the perennial 8/10 player, a man who never lets anyone down. The only difference is he’s absolutely world class.