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Jesse Lingard’s work rate has stood out for England at this World Cup
Lingard has been key to England's run to the semi-finals
Last Updated: 09/07/18 12:17pm
Following his strong performances at the World Cup, England midfielder Jesse Lingard is finally beginning to receive the appreciation that he deserves, writes Adam Bate.
When thinking of Jesse Lingard, it is an interview with Manchester United's long-serving youth coach Tony Whelan that comes to mind. Ostensibly speaking to him about Scott McTominay's emergence at Old Trafford, time and again Whelan's reference point was the man he describes as one of the best players he has had the privilege to coach.
"He had issues with his size," Whelan told Sky Sports. "But it goes to show that if you are patient and there is two-way trust, anything can be achieved. Some boys get written off because they have an injury or they are too small but what you can never account for us is a boy's spirit and what is in his heart. That is the great intangible."
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Manchester United supporters took time to be convinced of Lingard's credentials. But as big-name midfielders such as Angel Di Maria and Henrikh Mkhitaryan came and went, the qualities that the boy from Warrington brought to the team slowly became apparent. A willing runner with a bit of quality helps to bring the best out in others as well as himself.
Now England are appreciating that too. Lingard's reputation as a big-game player is well-established thanks to his knack of delivering cup final goals for his club but he has now extended his repertoire to include the biggest stage of them all. The week could yet end with Lingard lining up in for his country in the World Cup final.
Gareth Southgate has long been an admirer. He described Lingard as "the best performer" in his squad at the European Under-21 Championship three summers ago and rewarded with him his first senior cap upon taking charge of the senior side in October 2016. But even he needed to do some tinkering to find the best role for Lingard in this team.
After starting the first two competitive matches of Southgate's reign, he did not make the line-up for any of the remaining seven World Cup qualifiers. In fact, he did not make an England start of any kind for 16 months. But when Southgate changed the system in the spring, he knew who to turn to, using him to connect the midfield and attack.
The revolution is Southgate's but Lingard has been a revelation. His spectacular strike against Panama was by some distance the best goal that England have scored at this World Cup. Against Sweden, he provided the assist for Dele Alli's goal and was impressive throughout, having more shots and completing twice as many dribbles as any other player on the pitch.
Lingard's ability to retain possession fits well with Southgate's style of play. His pass completion rate of 93.4 per cent ranks him second among midfielders to have made at least three starts at this World Cup. He gets the ball, gives it to a team-mate and keeps moving. He has found his niche. "The formation suits us perfectly," said Lingard recently.
But to really understand his importance to Southgate's side requires an appreciation of his work off the ball as well as on it. The England manager knows exactly what he brings. "Jesse is fantastic at recognising space and working away from the ball to provide a great link between midfield and attack," Southgate explained on the eve of the tournament.
That has been evident in Lingard's performances in Russia. He covered more ground than any other England player in the matches against Tunisia, Colombia and Sweden. The only reason he did not do so in the win over Panama as well was because he was withdrawn midway through the second half. While on the pitch, he outran everyone.
Against Colombia, he covered an astonishing 15.4 kilometres - more than a kilometre further than anyone else. He was well clear of the rest in the Sweden game too. The tracking data shows that Lingard spent the lowest percentage of time moving at speeds below seven kilometres per hour of anyone on the pitch - he was perpetual motion.
There was a prime example in the third minute of the game in Samara when he ran deep to show for the ball, creating space for others by sucking in his marker. When he did not receive the pass, he span in behind and stretched the Sweden defence in the right channel, opening up a gap for his team-mates to exploit in the zone that he had vacated.
Given his work rate, Lingard could have been forgiven for tiring as the game wore on. Instead, that is the time that he seems able to exploit the tiredness in others. With five minutes left, he was winning back possession in the Sweden half. In stoppage time, Lingard was the one who was running with the ball at his feet when the referee blew for full-time.
England will be up against a technically superior midfield when they face Croatia. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic can hurt any opponent if they get on the ball. But Lingard can win a game for his side without it. It takes a little longer to appreciate that kind of player. But Whelan and Southgate now have millions alongside them in the Jesse Lingard fan club.
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