Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has confirmed that Jesse Lingard will return to action when his team faces Norwich in the FA Cup quarter-finals on Saturday evening.
Solskjaer also praised Lingard’s ‘energy’ since training resumed earlier this month following the enforced coronavirus pause and, on the face of it, it could be made to sound as though the former academy prospect is being welcomed back into the fold.
The truth is, Lingard’s long-term future at Old Trafford is no clearer whether he plays against Norwich or not, with Solskjaer’s fairly non-committal response on the subject ahead of the cup tie at Carrow Road as much of a clue that he might be sold as stay at the club.
“He has come back after the lockdown with a smile on his face and loads of energy,” Solskjaer said as he faced a media video conference before the trip to Norfolk.
“Last week he fell ill for a couple of days but we have done all the tests and he’s fine. He will be involved against Norwich now.
“Hopefully he can kick on. He has scored vital goals for us, and has been a vital player for us. Let’s see what the future will hold. At the moment he is looking really sharp and focused.”
The takeaway there is ‘let’s see what the future holds’, which really means that Lingard has to up his game if he is to extend his long association with United.
The former academy prospect has only one more year on his current contract and is absolutely going to be auditioning for his future over the next few weeks. But the likelihood of him earning that chance when performances over the last 18 have consistently been sub-par, when he already doesn’t get near United’s strongest XI, and when there is likely to be even more competition for places in his favoured positions next season, appears increasingly slim.
Lingard missed Wednesday night’s comfortable win over Sheffield United due to illness. Yet even had he been available, a substitute cameo is the best he could have hoped for.
He has only started nine Premier League games all season anyway, but it is now quite telling that only one of those has been in the calendar year 2020 – and even that was on 1 January. It is no coincidence that since Bruno Fernandes arrived and United have generally improved, Lingard hasn’t had a look-in when it comes to the Premier League in particular.
It’s not like there haven’t been chances. Marcus Rashford was injured, freeing up a role on the left flank. Paul Pogba was injured, creating a creativity void. United have also lacked a right-sided attacking player for years. But Lingard hasn’t made any role his own.
Now that Rashford and Pogba are back, United have Bruno Fernandes and are seeking further attacking midfield and wide reinforcements this summer, Lingard’s chance only grows smaller.
Lingard played 90 minutes as United beat Tranmere and Derby 6-0 and 3-0 respectively in the FA Cup. Each time he was back on the bench, if he was lucky, for subsequent bigger league games. The nod against Norwich, who have been in the Premier League relegation zone since April, highlights his role in the new-look United squad. And that is a back-up player at best.
Lingard no longer plays for United because he is better than anyone else, he only plays at all now when others are being deliberately rested against weaker opposition.
Having good ‘energy’ in training is one thing, but actually convincing a manager that appears to have moved on that he should pick you for important games to make a difference is quite another.
There is no place for Lingard at Old Trafford and playing in the odd cup tie doesn’t change that.