3,902 games and counting. That’s the number of consecutive Manchester United matchday squads to feature at least one academy player. It’s a record you’re probably familiar with… largely because the club’s supporters scarcely miss an opportunity to celebrate it.
And who can blame them? It’s a phenomenal record which stretches back to October 1937 and given the current climate where nearly 70 percent of all players in the Premier League are foreign, it’s one to appreciate and take pride in.
However, as impressive as the numbers are by themselves, it’s players like Jesse Lingard who give the record its authenticity and credibility. Like so many academy graduates before him, his performances and promise have ensured that any appearance he makes in the first team squad are not mere formality to keep that record ticking over for the sake of prestige.
In fact, as Jose Mourinho has gradually found out this season, Lingard’s presence is more a necessity for immediate success than a means to keep the club’s longstanding traditions alive.
The midfielder has scored 12 goals in all competitions this season, that’s second only to £75million striker Romelu Lukaku. Since the start of December, Lingard’s goals have won United five points in the league. He’s proven his worth, failing to start just once in United’s last 11 Premier League outings.
And on that one occasion, he came off the bench at half-time to score a brace away to Burnley and rescue a point for his side who were 2-0 down at the break. Talk about making a statement.
His form has prompted more cries of ‘Messi Lingard’, a nickname derived from fondness and humour but with an undertone of mockery.
It’s hilarity stems from the notion that Lingard is a rather unspectacular player and associating him with arguably the best of all-time is as amusing as it is audacious.
There’s truth to it of course. Lingard is hardly among the game’s elite, despite former United assistant coach Rene Meulensteen’s questionable decision to compare him with Andres Iniesta.
The Manchester local doesn’t boast the kind of natural talent or flawless technique the aforementioned Barcelona icon is celebrated for but can nevertheless be proud of his own unique skillset.
While Lingard is a colourful character as his celebrations, social media antics and general demeanour suggest, his style of play is only subtly complimented by the occasional splash of flair. His best features on the pitch are instead his work ethic, attitude, spatial awareness, link-up play and above all, goal-scoring.
He isn’t blessed with blistering pace and you won’t be treated to a series of step-overs but he’s the kind of attacking midfielder who’s always on the same wavelength as those around him, has the uncanny ability to sniff out a goal and the technique to even belt one in from distance once within range.
It’s that penchant for goal-scoring that Lingard must harness. Consistency is key. A young Frank Lampard was written off early in his career and Harry Redknapp’s insistence that he would ‘go right to the very top’ was initially dismissed as nepotism. But the Chelsea legend’s hard work and incredible goal-scoring record set him apart.
Lingard must tread a similar path. At 25, the next few months will define his career. After already adding Alexis Sanchez to the squad, Mourinho looks certain to bring in more attacking talent over the summer with illustrious names like Antoine Griezmann, Paulo Dybala and Gareth Bale floating about.
His performances now will determine whether he goes on to play a starring role for United in the years to come or be reduced to a ‘useful’ squad player. Will he be Gary Neville or Wes Brown? Paul Scholes or Nicky Butt?
A trip to Wembley on Wednesday night will present Mourinho with his first glimpse at how Lingard fits into the team alongside a star like Sanchez and against quality opposition like Tottenham.
Strike up an understanding with the Chilean and ‘J Lings’ may only just be getting into the groove. Cue the Milly Rock music.
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