The idea that Jesse Lingard still has a future at Manchester United after resurrecting his career while on loan at West Ham is a nice one, but a permanent exit is still in the best interest of all parties.
Lingard will go down as one of the single greatest loan signings in Premier League history. He scored his sixth goal and registered his fourth assist for West Ham on Monday night in an important 3-2 win over Wolves, which was only his eighth appearance in claret and blue.
His impact has been like the final jigsaw piece for West Ham, taking an already improving side from being in the general mix for a top seven finish and a low European place to being in the top four and in strong contention to qualify for the Champions League.
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That victory over Wolves, which saw Lingard score the opener and set up what proved to be the decisive winner, propelled West Ham back into fourth place ahead of Chelsea and Tottenham.
Lingard was even recalled by England last month and stands an outside chance of making it into the Euro 2020 squad, which would have been unthinkable as recently as three months ago.
West Ham are understandably keen to make the deal permanent and United have been vindicated in their refusal to include a pre-arranged option to buy in the initial loan agreement because it opens up a wider market for Lingard without a fixed ceiling for the transfer fee.
There has even been speculation that Lingard has played his way back into the frame in Manchester, which would be a fairytale for the boyhood United fan who first joined the club’s academy ranks at the age of seven. But that isn’t the right ending for this story.
United still have no real need for Lingard and if he was to return, it could only be as a back-up or rotation player. He would provide squad depth to cover for a possible build up of injuries and at best be a relief starter in the early rounds of the EFL Cup and FA Cup.
That is how it was before his departure and United aren’t about to drop the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba or Marcus Rashford for him, nor would they be prepared to block the progression of younger players like Mason Greenwood, Amad Diallo or Shola Shoretire.
Lingard hadn’t played in the Premier League at all in 2020/21 before he joined West Ham, rarely even made the bench and only got on the pitch in the domestic cups. United also want to sign another attacking player ahead of next season that would only increase competition for places.
The fact he has done so well at West Ham is almost irrelevant in that sense because United are aiming much higher than the Hammers. Lingard is clearly a decent Premier League player, but it still doesn’t make him good enough to command a regular place at the elite level.
It is easy to forget that when Lingard was at his best for United a few years ago, scoring 13 goals in all competition during the 2017/18 campaign, he still wasn’t a regular starter. He was a rotation player even then, making impacts here and there but only starting 20 Premier League games.
At this stage of his career – he will turn 29 in the middle of next season – it isn’t fair on Lingard. He deserves more than a bit-part or fringe role because he obviously has a lot to give for the right club at the right level, as proven by his West Ham spell. He may never have really wanted to leave his boyhood team, but playing regularly trumps all and he looks so much happier now for it.
United cannot and will never be able to give him that, but someone else can.
To return to Old Trafford would be a huge step backwards for the player and would also represent an opportunity lost for the club because Lingard has given himself a handsome transfer value.
United have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic like every other club and any extra cash, plus the removal of a sizeable contract from the wage bill, will go towards much needed continued investment in the ongoing squad build. That could be adding to the transfer budget with straight cash or, when it comes to West Ham specifically, a part-exchange incentive for Declan Rice.
After 20 years, the time is right for Lingard to move on permanently, but everyone at Old Trafford and every United fan would wish him the absolute best in doing so.