At the start of the year I spoke to the former Manchester United first-team coach Rene Meulensteen about the emergence of Jesse Lingard as a major force for both United and England.
The Dutch coach was not surprised; he had seen this coming since Lingard began playing for him as an eight-year-old in the United youth teams.
“I always believed that Jesse was the English Andres Iniesta,” he told me. “Like Iniesta, he finds these pockets of space, he is always on the move and has very good feet. The only thing missing until recently was goals, but now Jesse is scoring important goals too.”
“In my opinion, you could fly Jesse to Barcelona, let him play in Iniesta’s position, and he would comfortably be able to do it and fit in. And he does it in the Premier League, which is more difficult than La Liga, so that is a credit to Jesse.”
There inevitably followed some sneering at Lingard attracting such high praise and being compared to one of the game’s all-time greats, but Meulensteen wasn’t saying the United man could ever be as good as the Spanish legend, but rather that they shared some of the same thrilling qualities.
Lingard proved that at Old Trafford last season, enjoying his best campaign so far, scoring 13 goals in all competitions, and finally establishing himself as a first-choice player.
An impressed Gareth Southgate decided he wanted Lingard in his England side as well, and since his debut in 2016 has given him 13 caps, and on Monday night trusted him to start against Tunisia in what was the biggest game of his career.
Lingard did not disappoint his manager and played a leading role in helping England to a crucial 2-1 win in their opening group game.
He was a hive of activity. Probing away at the Tunisian defence, making intelligent runs, slipping passes through, and timing his arrival in to their penalty area to perfection.
He was a matter of inches from helping himself to a hat-trick in the first half alone; the shot in the third minute the Tunisian goalkeeper Mouez Hassen saved with his foot, the volley that was heading in to the roof of the net before taking a deflection off the back of a Tunisian defender, and closest of all, after 44 minutes when he beat the substitute keeper Farouk Ben Mustapha to the ball and had to watch agonisingly as the ball clipped the outside of the post rather than roll across the line.
It would be easy to berate him for not converting these chances, but two were on target, and one hit the post, and it showed he was working hard to make something happen. The goals will surely come.
While Harry Kane deservedly received the most glowing headlines for his two goals, Lingard was quietly effective, especially in the first half, and arguably England’s best player, as the more lauded pair of Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli both toiled and had unmemorable evenings.
In the opening 25 minutes, England put on an impressive display of fluid attacking football. Lingard was at the heart of it and as the player making Southgate’s side tick.
In the final third of the pitch, Lingard’s passing was perfect, all ten of his passes reached their intended destination, and he successfully completed all three of his take-ons.
He has an awareness you can’t teach, it is innate, allowing him to thrive in tight positions, and find those pockets of space Meulensteen has spoken about.
The Iniesta comparison might not sit comfortably with some, but you can see the impact the former Barcelona man has had on Lingard’s game, and how since the age of 15, he has spent time watching him. Studying videos of how he performs in that space between midfield and the forward line.
Lingard’s running off the ball can be a joy to watch, when he suddenly ghosts in behind defenders and demands the ball, which happened twice in the opening minutes of Monday night’s victory.
It might have only been against Tunisia, but this is still the World Cup, the biggest stage of all, and better players than Lingard have frozen here in the past, but he appeared to be right at home.
He also has a habit of rising to the occasion, having scored decisive goals in both the 2016 FA Cup final and the 2017 League Cup final at Wembley, which, if England are to progress at this tournament, could prove to be very useful over the next four weeks.