The last time Manchester United visited Anfield, Jesse Lingard scored. Of course he did. It was Jose Mourinho’s last stand, and he picked a bizarre team including Matteo Darmian as a centre-back and excluding Paul Pogba. Liverpool racked up 36 shots.
But Lingard scored, and it scarcely ranked as a surprise. Back then, he was United’s big-game Jesse, a player who scored a disproportionate proportion of goals on the major stages. A couple of weeks earlier, he had scored against Arsenal. A month later, he did again, in the FA Cup.
In a three-year period, he scored four times against Arsenal, twice against Chelsea, once each against Liverpool, Holland and Croatia, as well as finding the net in the FA Cup final, the League Cup final and the Community Shield. He was more likely to score at Wembley than Burnley. It was a distinctly useful habit to have for a United or England player. If Romelu Lukaku was accused of being a flat-track bully, Lingard prospered on altogether rougher terrain.
Not any more. As United return to Anfield on Sunday, the chances are that they would settle for a goal against anyone. Lingard’s sole strike this season came against Astana, in a team including Dylan Levitt, Ethan Laird and Di’Shon Bernard, who may be destined to be the answer to future quiz questions. He ended 2019 with fewer assists and as many goals in United’s league games than Huddersfield’s Jonas Lossl: he wasn’t even the most potent man with his own initials when another one was a goalkeeper.
His last taste of the sort of occasion that used to define him was curtailed after 45 minutes. Lingard was substituted with Manchester City 3-0 up in the derby; his camp were suspiciously quick to claim he was still suffering with illness. His previous such outing came against his usual victims, Arsenal. This time, however, Lingard was wretched and removed. Ryan Giggs suggested he lacked footballing intelligence and compared him unfavourably with Mesut Özil.
The decline of Lingard has been a theme of the last year. He was one of England’s breakout stars of the 2018 World Cup. As it stands, he is unselectable for Euro 2020. He was one of the emblematic players of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s early surge; the Norwegian gave Lingard his debut in the reserves and the Englishman scored twice to give the caretaker a flying start in his managerial bow with the first team. Then Solskjaer’s rhetoric was laced with references to Jesse and ‘Rashy’; Marcus Rashford remains as symbolic but Lingard has been displaced by Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams among the homegrown personifications of homegrown Unitedness.
There are mitigating circumstances, of injuries and illness, of being a new father and having to care for his younger brother and sister when his mother was unwell. Yet Lingard has fallen out of favour with the fanbase – the obscene video he posted on social media in the summer scarcely helped – and a talisman has become a target.
His persona may not help. His JLingz closing brand made a £200,000 loss in a year – who knew other people didn’t want to dress like Lingard? – although, like most things, it may be forgiven and forgotten if United were profiting on the pitch. That stunning lack of end product feels ridiculous in an attacking midfielder, winger or a No. 10 for United and if Juan Mata and Andreas Pereira fall far short of the numbers United should require, they are still outdoing Lingard.
Pereira has perhaps leapfrogged him as the hard-running, pressing No. 10. Lingard was never a creative one anyway. Those limitations have become more glaringly apparent as United have struggled to find a way of playing beyond counter-attacking. Lingard has contrived to make the missing Pogba more important. Minus the Frenchman, United’s midfield has been all too barren.
Lingard’s answer appears to be Mino Raiola, the super-agent he has hired. Yet Raiola’s clients tend to be upwardly mobile, not downwardly so, which looks Lingard’s likeliest trajectory. There were suggestions he would be offered as a makeweight in a deal to take James Maddison to Leicester. Another of the division’s ambitious middle class could be interested, but Lingard’s wages, of at least £100,000 a week, would be a deterrent. Meanwhile, United eye Bruno Fernandes as a possible upgrade. The Portuguese has 28 goals for club and country in a time when Lingard has one.
If Lingard was never as prolific, it used to be the case he illustrated his worth by the quality of the opponents when he scored, not the quantity of goals. But perhaps Lingard’s decline is such that a dreadful year will leave him without a role as well as without goals.
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