Manchester United’s pre-season tours of late have given false dawns to more than one player. Federico Macheda, forever in the shadow of that goal against Aston Villa, would always get a bagful of goals on tour before fading once the season started. Bébé played well in South Africa last year. Michael Owen looked really sharp the year before, even getting the winner against Barcelona. None of these went on to contribute anything the season after.
This season has been no different. We all already knew about the abilities of Wilfied Zaha, and Adnan Januzaj has been on our radars since making the bench for Sir Alex Ferguson’s last game in charge at the Hawthorns. However, the player who’s really grasped his chance to impress the new manager and push his way into the first team picture is Jesse Lingard.
Manchester United are often hailed for their ability to bring through world-class youth prospects, but this reputation masks the awkward truth that, since the Beckham generation, only Danny Welbeck has truly established himself for both club and country. Tom Cleverley remains on the fringes of the England squad for the time being, and there have been near misses such as Darron Gibson and Kieran Richardson. Conversely, there has been a lot of bought talent like Jones and Smalling, and imported talent like the Da Silva twins, but genuine local Manchester lads haven’t been graduating with anything like the regularity that Brian McClair, the head of United’s academy, would hope for.
Indeed, the failure to get anything out of Ravel Morrison, often named as the most gifted youth player Ferguson has ever had at his disposal, has to be particularly heartbreaking. Fortunately, things are looking slightly brighter for Lingard.
For a start, Lingard doesn’t appear to have a fatal flaw in the way that Morrison’s bad temper and attitude was always his Achilles heel. Having been at the club since the age of seven Jesse has been nurtured in the Manchester United way, to not rock the boat and to behave himself. This can only endear him to Moyes.
Secondly, his form on this season’s tour has been scintillating. Four goals in four games, including United’s first under Moyes, tells only part of the story. Lively, busy and technically gifted, he looks every part the modern midfielder in the Iniesta mould, although such comparisons are naturally grandiose for a player who’s only played five Football Leagues games in his life. Two of his goals, albeit against limited opposition, were genuinely world class.
Lingard was similarly impressive on last year’s tour although, playing in a deeper role, his impact was a little more difficult to ascertain. This year he has left no such doubts. He has also noticeably filled out in the past 12 months. He now has a small amount of brawn to add to his brains and ability which, as David Silva has demonstrated, is all that’s required if you’re good enough.
Another 12 months have passed without Manchester United signing a midfielder and, with Moyes conducting a fairly public pursuit of Cesc Fabregas having declared midfield his recruitment priority, it’s not difficult to see Lingard being given an opportunity to stake some sort of claim once the season begins.
Unfortunately, he occupies a similar area on the pitch to his fellow tour stars Zaha and Januzaj. Even with Nani seemingly on his way to Monaco, that still leaves senior players like Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney competing for places behind Robin van Persie, and that’s ignoring the claims of Nick Powell, last summer’s big-money arrival from Crewe.
It’s likely that Zaha will be given the first crack of the whip and, with Lingard, Powell and Januzaj also on the scene, it’s almost impossible that all four will establish themselves at United. Thanks to his performances this pre-season, Lingard has gone from an also ran to a genuine contender for a place in midfield.