Undoubtedly last year was the breakout year for Jesse Lingard, but almost from day 1 he has been an enigma – some value his work rate, others criticise his end product. Some love his intelligent runs to open space for others, others criticise his end product. Suprisingly few people value his versatility and tactical intelligence, others criticise his end product. It should be clear now which side of the fence I stand.
Jesse Lingard tactically though is quite odd, here are very few players of his style around. Most of the matches he’s played have been on the wings (primarily the right) but he has played number 10, centre midfield, striker and even right wing back (albeit only once). However no matter where he appears on team sheet he plays largely the same role. Below is his heatmap for the community shield (playing, in theory, on the right wing):
He appears in both boxes, on both wings and frankly everywhere on the pitch. If you saw the game then that was evident – not least in his goal, where he started at the centre circle dribbled out towards the left then came back inside before shooting.
This is role I mentioned earlier is simple – run to create and exploit space. Be that by dropping deep dragging defenders out of position, running beyond to stretch the defence or moving across field to create overloads. Above all else Lingard is an intelligent footballer.
What about his weaknesses? Well his finishing is erratic (except in finals it appears) and crossing isn’t a strong point. The former is the bigger issue as the latter can be easily masked by tactics. At the moment (assuming he plays on the right) his crossing isn’t a problem as Antonio Valencia (who recently found the crossing boots he left in his parents garage 4 years ago) is a short pass away on the overlap, but on the right wing his time is limited. Mata has started there in the first two Premier League games due to Lingard’s injury (and impressed) and though he is being eased into EPL life, Henrikh Mhikitaryan will almost undoubtedly establish himself as a regular starter.
So where next? Left wing would be an option if not for Martial, and though he’s been average so far he isn’t going anywhere. Central midfield could have been possible, but with Pogba now at United such an offensive pairing of the 2 would be suicidal (Mourinho will be aware of this more than anyone). So that leaves one slot – number 10.
Louis Van Gaal tried Lingard last season at pseudo-number 10 in stretches and he was fine there but not outstanding. But the pseudo here is important; on the team sheet presented by the TV broadcasters he was number 10 (as they naively assumed it was the standard 4231) but it played out more like a lopsided 4141 – with Carrick holding and Lingard and Herrera/Schneiderlin/Fellaini/etc the other side of central midfield.
But now, LVG’s days of baffling tactical switches are over and with Mourinho in charge the standard 4231 has been implemented and there is no real reason to think that will change. So now a proper number 10 role emerges – for Lingard to slot into. The final question is how.
Looking again at his heatmap and style of play, him wandering the final third with freedom would likely be very effective – dropping out to the right when Mkhitaryan/Mata comes inside, going to the left to create an overload with Martial/Shaw, running beyond (the rather slow) Ibrahimovic onto his knockdowns and through balls – the possibilities are endless.
Having read that the first player that came to mind was Dusan Tadic. He is a natural winger who now plays as a number 10 for Southampton (as United fans saw in the first planned Friday night football) but even when he does he drifts wide to cross and impact play.
The second (and I think more apt) player I thought of was Bernardo Silva in the U21 EUROs last year – the Portugal side he played for finished second playing a strange 4312 system but with the 2 being wingers rather than forwards. The main attacking threat for that team was Silva – playing behind forwards(?) and generally running the games. In the final and couple of other matches the opposition tried clogging the centre to stop him playing but it didn’t help. His experience as a winger meant he just as comfortably exploited the extra space out wide – because Silva is an adaptable, intelligent player who finds space and exploits it.
Now set Lingard this role – starting in the number 10 area before pushing forward to press, or splitting wide to support a full back before dropping deep to defend. Not only would such an improvisational, intelligent player disrupt the opposition backline, but having those areas left free for Pogba to charge into would help him undoubtedly (and Mkhitaryan to an extent).
Playing in the number 10 area would emphasise his strengths, and make his main weaknesses less important. If Mourinho is able to overcome the enormous political wall that is Wayne Rooney to implement this, it will help Manchester United, and Jesse Lingard, no end.