The England international, depending on who you listen to, is either useless and not worth his place in the Red Devils’ squad, or a valuable, versatile local lad who offers a solid and reliable output.
Lingard’s recent performances, however, are rendering such debates redundant. The 24-year-old attacker has scored three times in his last two Premier League outings, netting crucial goals in tricky away trips to Watford and Arsenal.
What’s more, his unique skillset has made him vital to the new tactical system José Mourinho has employed in these fixtures. Where once Lingard would rotate into the team when a star needed a rest, he now looks absolutely crucial to the way United want to play.
In the games against Watford and Arsenal, Mourinho has utilised a kind of 3-5-2/3-4-2-1 hybrid formation.
This is something he has toyed with in the past with Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the floating role between midfield and attack, but the Armenian lack the consistency and defensive nous to be effective in the position.
Lingard, though, ticks all of the boxes. Mourinho needs the man in this role to be comfortable as part of a midfield three as well as wide in a front three; they must be intelligent enough to understand when to move between the two positions, and fast enough to make the transition.
Mourinho also needs this player to be able to press diligently, link with the other forward players and run behind them when the time calls, as well as having an intricate knowledge of their role in the team’s defensive shape and how to limit space and cut off passing lanes.
Lingard can do all of this. He may lack the creative touch of Mkhitaryan or Juan Mata, and he doesn’t have Paul Pogba’s flair, but he works tirelessly, is efficient in his use of the ball and possesses an acute understanding of how to exploit any space allowed by the opposition.
In the above image from United’s victory at the Emirates, we see Lingard (circled) forming part of a midfield three, alongside Pogba and with Nemanja Matić in the deeper holding role.
This, up against the Gunners’ 3-4-2-1, gives United numerical superiority in the centre of the pitch, making them harder to break down and offering more passing options when the ball is regained.
Again, we see Lingard (circled) in a midfield station, with United having fallen back into their defensive structure shortly after taking an early lead.
The Warrington-born star is constantly surveying his surroundings to remain aware of the opposition’s positioning, and is well placed to intercept or press if the ball is moved into his zone.
However, when United are on the ball, Lingard switches gears and helps form a front three with, moving up alongside Martial, with Lukaku (out of shot) slightly ahead of them.
Lingard’s ability to seamlessly transition between these two separate roles makes him incredibly difficult for Arsenal to pick up, creating a conundrum for the home side of whether he is the responsibility of the midfield or defence.
As such, he has been able to find space between the lines, from where his clever link play can hurt the opposition.
Although his goals have grabbed the headlines – particularly his stunning solo effort at Vicarage Road (Messi Lingard, anybody?) – the United No.14’s most valuable asset, at least in the eyes of his manager, is his pressing ability.
There have been times, both under Mourinho and predecessor Louis van Gaal, when Lingard has been fielded as a No.10 in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the main remit of shutting down the space afforded to the an opponent’s deep-lying playmaker.
Some fans bemoan such tactical choices, feeling that a player in that position must be a creator first and foremost, rather than a destroyer, but his managers have understood the value Lingard can add through his work-rate and speed in transition.
In his new role within Mourinho’s malleable system, Lingard’s pressing again comes to the fore (Pressy Lingard…No?).
Lingard’s dedication to pressing was evident in the build-up to his first goal against Arsenal.
United pressed the Gunners superbly in the opening 20 minutes, and no man was more crucial to that than Lingard, who (circled) can be seen closing down the player in possession above.
As the Gunners shift the ball along their backline, Lingard doesn’t give up his pressing duties.
The pressure he puts Shkodran Mustafi under results in the German centre-back playing the ball straight to Lukaku, meaning United regain possession high up the pitch with Arsenal in disarray.
From there, Lukaku plays the ball into Martial, and Lingard continues his forward progress.
Demonstrating his link-up skills, he makes an intelligent run inside the Frenchman – the more obvious path on the right would have enabled Laurent Koscielny to block his progress.
Martial delicately laid the ball into Lingard’s path, and the Englishman finished confidently, in off the post.
The above average positions map (courtesy of Whoscored) from the Arsenal-United game shows that, despite his starting position being as part of the midfield, Lingard straddled a midfield and attacking remit, finding joy between the lines and frustrating the Gunners with and without the ball.
If this interesting new system is one Mourinho hopes to use going forward, Lingard might just become one of the first names of the teamsheet.