Has Jesse Lingard made himself a vital player at Manchester United?
By Joe Harker
Things haven't quite been going to plan for Manchester United in recent weeks. They've dropped points and fallen behind in a title race that hadn't really been on for a couple of months. Instead they appear to be facing a scrap with the rest of the top six clubs for second, third and fourth positions that will provide Champions League qualification. The strikers aren't scoring as much as they were earlier in the season and the defence is leakier. One crumb of comfort in this is Jesse Lingard, who has suddenly started playing brilliantly.
Lingard has been tried in the attacking midfield role recently and appears to have a knack for it, scoring several important goals including a brace that rescued a point against Burnley. United may feel that they should not be in a position where they need to salvage something against Burnley but the plain situation is they have been and Lingard was the man who stepped up. He now has six goals and two assists in his last seven league games and appears to be thriving in a central role.
The player credited his manager's decision to move him closer to striker Romelu Lukaku as a reason for his improvement. Although he has previously spent time on the wing, Lingard believes that playing off a striker is helping him find space and be more of an attacking threat. Lingard has done well working with another striker before, combining with Marcus Rashford to great effect in last season's 2-0 win against Chelsea. Although his hard work and defensive contribution kept him on the wing for a long time he appears to be best in the thick of the action.
United manager Jose Mourinho had hinted that Lingard could be played centrally more often after scoring two goals in a cup game against Swansea. He gave the forward a free role to move around and work with the striker and it paid off. With other attacking midfielder at the club struggling it may be that Lingard has nailed down the role for himself until another player is signed. Henrikh Mkhitaryan started the season in a central role but a dip in form saw him fall out of favour with Mourinho and Lingard has stepped in to contribute more in that role.
However, doubts over Lingard's composure in front of goal persist and United are still looking for a new attacking midfielder. While he is becoming more clinical he still misses some clear chances and he must continue to improve to throw off a reputation for struggling to score.