Gary Neville has spoken effusively of Jesse Lingard following the 25-year-old’s impressive World Cup with England, likening his influence in attacking midfield to that of Ji-Sung Park.
His role as a conduit between midfield and attack for England in Russia was fundamental to the success of Gareth Southgate’s system of playing through the middle.
Speaking to ESPN‘s Andy Mitten in Moscow, Neville was keen to emphasise the necessary qualities brought by Lingard to both club and country.
“I always remember Ji-Sung Park at United. Everyone, including me, talks about [Wayne] Rooney, [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Carlos] Tevez, but the missing cog was Ji-Sung Park — or Owen Hargreaves in 2007-08. Without those type of players, you can’t have balance. That’s what Jesse brings.
“He’s a fantastic player in terms of how he contributes to a team’s dynamic. He’s done really well in his World Cup. Gareth and Jose Mourinho deserve so much credit for the faith they’ve shown in Jesse.
“At United, there are more fashionable players like [Juan] Mata, [Anthony] Martial, Alexis Sanchez, [Marcus] Rashford, [Paul] Pogba or [Romelu] Lukaku. Yet Jesse is the one who makes the team play better.”
Man United have often been guilty of wedging star players – big names – into a starting XI without a clear idea of how they should function as a collective. Selling shirts, after all, lies ominously high on this club’s priority list.
There aren’t many better examples of this than Real Madrid’s lineup against Barcelona in November 2015. Rafa Benitez – can you believe he actually managed Madrid? – opted for a front six of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, James Rodriquez, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Well, in practice, it was a miserable fudge: no link up play, no collective idea, no shape, no chemistry. Just a load of big names in a starting XI. Madrid lost that game 4-0.
This is why Lingard has to be taken seriously. He is a player who furnishes an attack, giving it shape and a certain pace, without even touching the ball a lot of the time.
The way Southgate has used him to such effect at this World Cup is a vindication of Mourinho’s belief in him. He comes back to Old Trafford with his stock sky high.