Manchester United travel to the Emirates on Friday evening for their fourth round FA Cup game against Arsenal. However, they will be without David de Gea who did not travel down to London with the squad on Thursday.
In United’s last meeting at the Emirates, United won 3-1 and De Gea arguably put in the best performance of his career. After the game, then manager, Jose Mourinho, claimed this display proved he was the best goalkeeper in the world.
However, while De Gea saved United, it was Jesse Lingard who deserved his share in the praise after scoring twice.
It is likely he will be in the starting line-up this time around too after proving to be one of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s favourites up front. The Norwegian deployed Lingard in a surprise central role against Spurs, which worked to great effect, and he may look to do something similar against Unai Emery’s side.
“Obviously, the goal was fantastically taken by Rashford, but you know the defensive job Jesse did and the pass from Paul is half the goal,” Solskjaer said after the victory over Tottenham. “The goal is why I put Anthony and Rashford wide of Jesse because Jesse is more of a link player and he can drop in whereas Rash and Anthony are more direct towards goal and that is why we put that plan in place and it worked.”
Lingard is a player who is often dismissed by supporters, both at United and rival clubs, but has a knack of earning the trust of all his managers. Mourinho regularly played him in big games, Solskjaer has followed suit, while Gareth Southgate has been a fan of his since his England U-21 days.
To the surprise of many, Lingard was played regularly in all of Southgate’s early games with the first team and has largely done well for his country. At the World Cup, he scored England’s best goal of the tournament in their win over Panama.
Lingard has also proven to be a man for the big occasion plenty of times in his United career to date.
He scored decisive goals in both United’s victorious FA Cup and League Cup finals in 2016 and 2017, he’s scored on two occasions against Chelsea, on two occasions against Arsenal, as well as a goal against Liverpool too.
Last season he managed a goal or assist every 140 minutes he was on the pitch in the league. For the sake of comparison, the more highly rated Eden Hazard managed a goal or assist every 152 minutes and Dele Alli every 156 minutes.
He started this season slowly after the World Cup and carried an injury for the first few months, but has started to find his feet more recently.
Still, among some people, he will never be popular, whether that’s purely based on their opinion of his ability or because of his personality, which we see plenty of on social media.
.@YouTube ain’t readyy for mee 🎥!! Go like, subscribe and comment 🙌🏾 WHEN I HIT MY FIRST 100k SUBSCRIBERS THERE WILL BE PRIZES AND GIVEAWAYS 🎁 🏙🏖🎡 VERY SPECIAL PRIZES 📱✈️ #BeYourself @JLingz LINK IN BIO & HERE: https://t.co/4vmVIR7tZQ pic.twitter.com/xDEWCKU2oC
— Jesse Lingard (@JesseLingard) January 16, 2019
Lingard is always clowning around, having a laugh with his teammates and generally acting daft. On the pitch, that same playful nature is apparent, and he has explained why he has no intention of changing.
In his piece for The Players’ Tribune, Lingard reflected on how hard he had to work for his opportunity at United, spending time out on loan at four clubs before being given his debut by Louis van Gaal in 2014.
"When an absolute legend like Sir Alex says they believe in you, that means everything. He didn’t have to meet with us, and he didn’t have to say that to me.
But that’s why he’s Sir Alex, and that’s why Man United is Man United."
— Players' Tribune Global (@TPT_Global) January 24, 2019
However, just 20 minutes into the game he suffered a knee injury that kept him out for months and lead to him being sent back out on loan as he recovered fully.
“It took me hitting rock bottom to really appreciate the opportunity we all have every time we pull on that United shirt. It can all go away in an instant,” he said. “It was a full 14 months before I had the chance to put on the United shirt again. I haven’t stopped smiling since. If you don’t like it, sorry. I’m not gonna change.”
While some United fans are all for academy graduates being given an opportunity, eager to see players who love the club and are willing to go that extra mile for their boyhood team, plenty of others grow weary.
Lingard was wearing a United shirt when he could barely walk and joined the academy when he was just seven, but it’s about more than that with him. He’s a player who brings out the best in his teammates, follows instructions to a tee, chases every ball for 90 minutes, and who has a wicked shot on him. It can’t just be a coincidence that every United manager and the England boss so often include him in their starting line-up.
Thankfully, the naysayers don’t get Lingard down, and he has no intention of dulling his spirit to please others.
“It’s funny, certain people will criticise me now because I’m always smiling out there on the pitch,” he said. “But I’ll never stop being myself. I’ll never stop enjoying my football. I’ll never take the smile off my face when I step over the line, because I know what it means to wear this shirt. I know how lucky I am to do what I do for a living, and to represent this badge, and I’m never gonna stop enjoying it for a minute.”
Will Lingard claim his fourth goal against Arsenal on Friday? He certainly seems to enjoy scoring against the Gooners to make that a believable prospect. But if he does play, you know he’ll give his all for every minute he’s on the pitch, just like he always does, and he’ll enjoy himself while he’s at it.