When Jesse Lingard showed the ingenuity that so much of his game is based on to set up Cristiano Ronaldo for his dramatic winner against Villarreal it looked like a matter of time until he was starting games for Manchester United.
Ronaldo’s 95th-minute strike against the La Liga side stole the headlines, but it was only possible because Lingard had come off the bench and once again made an impact, managing to tee up Ronaldo despite being off-balance.
That came 10 days after he’d come off the bench to score a late winner of his own at West Ham, curling in a brilliant shot to beat his former club. It was already his second goal of the season and having been promised opportunities by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the decision to stay over the summer was beginning to look a shrewd one.
At that stage of the season, when United’s campaign was only teetering on the brink of implosion, there was an argument that Lingard was one of the most important players. When the season fell apart his energetic enthusiasm and ability to link play between midfield and attack could have been valued.
Instead, he’s made only eight substitute appearances since his contribution against Villarreal on September 29, never entering the action earlier than the 76th minute. No wonder Lingard is furious at the way he’s been treated by United this season.
He’s not alone at Carrington in wondering why he hasn’t been trusted, particularly by Solskjaer. United should have cashed in last summer if this was the plan for Lingard. He will walk away for nothing this summer instead and although he’s spent 22 years of his life at his boyhood club, you can’t imagine the tears will flow after the last few months.
Had United not demanded such a significant survival bonus from Newcastle United perhaps Lingard would have already said his farewells, spending the final few months of his contract trying to contribute to their attempts to stay in the Premier League.
The desire to extract such a sizeable fee was based on Lingard’s nine goals and four assists in 16 Premier League games for the Hammers in the second half of last season, but if the 29-year-old is really that highly valued it’s a mystery why he’s been so underused this season.
When Newcastle returned to the negotiating table on deadline day, circumstances meant United’s position had changed. The ongoing absence of Mason Greenwood and the departure of Donny van de Beek to Everton saw Ralf Rangnick’s squad trimmed and to let Lingard leave as well would have been a risk, even if the player was desperate for the move.
At least now there is clarity. Lingard will depart for free in the summer when he will have his pick of suitors. In the final few months of his United career, he might get more opportunities than he has of late. Maybe he’ll even start a Premier League game for United for the first time since January 1, 2020.
He could get a chance against Middlesbrough tomorrow night, in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Lingard might not be a starter right now, but with Rangnick switching to a 4-3-3 the academy graduate is a squad player for a No 8 role behind Fred and Bruno Fernandes and on the right-wing behind Jadon Sancho.
At the start of the season Lingard proved he was good enough to contribute to this side. With United still in the FA Cup and the Champions League and chasing fourth place in the Premier League, there is still plenty of opportunity for him to show the club what they will be missing beyond this season.