Memphis who? How Jesse Lingard has proven he's the man Manchester United need
The summer signing of Memphis Depay for £25 million was supposed to signal the beginning of a new chapter in the storied history of Manchester United. The Dutchman arrived at Old Trafford off the back of a season in which he netted 22 league goals for PSV Eindhoven, helping Phillip Cocu’s side secure the Eredivisie title for the first time since 2008. Under the tutelage of countryman Louis van Gaal at United, many tipped Depay to make an instant impact.
Three months later and Red Devils fans are still waiting. Aside from bright performances in the Champions League qualifiers with Club Brugge, Depay’s stats make for grim reading: one goal in Europe, one in the Premier League, no assists and two yellow cards. He’s yet to complete a game at club level since the 3-2 win over Southampton in mid-September.
Put simply, it’s not been the start that United supporters were expecting.
Diamond in the rough
Lingard’s greater depth of passing has helped Wayne Rooney maintain a position higher up the pitch
Fortunately for Van Gaal, Jesse Lingard has stepped up the plate. The United academy graduate has experienced a few false dawns in his professional football career to date, but in recent weeks the 22-year-old has shown himself to be an extremely talented youngster who could become a mainstay in the first team this season.
One of the areas in which Lingard has proven himself to be superior to Depay is in his passing: the young Englishman is confident and composed when it comes to distributing the ball, with his directness reminiscent of the aggressive wide play seen at Old Trafford during Sir Alex Ferguson’s heyday.
At first glance, the two sets of data appear almost identical. The true impact of Lingard's passing, however, is revealed by the area of the pitch in which his balls are received.
Take away the corners and only one of Depay's passes landed in a genuinely dangerous areas against Southampton. By contrast, Lingard played passes from both inside the box and in advanced areas out wide against West Brom, frequently cutting the ball back after taking a full-back out of the game with a purposeful run forward. Rather than looking to find a team-mate in a dangerous position, Depay generally aims to carve out a shooting opportunity for himself.
Lingard’s greater depth of passing has helped Wayne Rooney maintain a position higher up the pitch in recent matches, as evidenced by the areas in which he is receiving the ball.
The passing data taken from the two players’ most recent Champions League starts makes for even bleaker reading for Depay.
Lingard's impact, though, isn't limited to passing. The 22-year-old is much more of a team player than Depay: not only does Lingard attempt far more tackles than the Dutchman in a bid to win the ball back quickly once possession has been lost, but he also looks to receive passes slightly higher up the field.
As the attempted passing graphic illustrates, the difference between Depay and Lingard's relative positions when they receive the ball is a subtle one. This suggests that while Van Gaal is asking the pair to perform similar tasks, Lingard and Depay are interpreting their duties in different ways.
Lingard, in general, receives passes slightly deeper than Depay, allowing him to cross or pass the ball more quickly from a wide position than Depay is able to. Lingard also tends to get the ball out of his feet more quickly than his team-mate, something that has helped to take United’s notoriously slow tempo up a notch.
Given United’s continued state of flux, it could be the case that Lingard is precisely the kind of steadying force in forward areas that the team needs
The biggest question regarding Lingard is whether or not he’s capable of significant further progress. Given Depay's reputation and price tag, not to mention his outstanding performances for Van Gaal's Netherlands team during the 2014 World Cup, it is incredibly unlikely that he's going to spend the rest of the season on the bench.
At 22, Lingard is not quite as young as many people think – he's already had Championship loan spells at Leicester, Birmingham, Brighton and Derby – but it’s true that his career has hitherto lacked the same regular first-team opportunities enjoyed by Depay.
The other side of the coin, of course, is that Lingard’s recent success has simply been a result of doing the basics well. Depay, a player who clearly loves taking on entire teams by himself, may have to follow suit if he is to displace the youth product in Van Gaal’s XI.
Given United’s continued state of flux, it could be the case that Lingard is precisely the kind of steadying force in forward areas that the team needs. It would be a shame, though, were he to merely be used as a stop-gap until Depay is deemed ready to step up to the plate.
Could it be that the winger Van Gaal and United so desired in Depay has been under their noses the whole time? The 20-time English champions’ academy has a long and proud history of excellence. Perhaps, then, they should have put their faith in it again this time before raiding their bank account for someone else’s young prospect.