Connect in the back of the net

It is six months until England head to France for next summer’s European Championship and after a comfortable qualifying process in which Roy Hodgson’s team posted a perfect record of 10 wins out of 10, friendlies with Spain and France, and then Germany and the Netherlands next March, are serving as opportunities for Hodgson to fine tune his squad for the finals.

According to Hodgson though, he will be dealing with a mostly closed group of players.

“Now we are going to concentrate on a core group who, if they’re all fit, will be with us in France next summer…..People will have to work very hard to break into the group now” he said, words that will register as a blow to those currently playing their way into form.

Jesse Lingard is certainly one of those. The Manchester United winger has recently established himself into Louis Van Gaal’s side, at the expense of £25 million summer signing Memphis Depay, and scored his first goal for the club he joined as a 7 year old with a cushioned half-volley against West Bromwich Albion.

Lingard said the goal, which displayed calm assurance to kill the ball in the face of a glut of onrushing defenders before bending it into the corner of the net, came after advice from Van Gaal when it came to composure in front of goal.

The 22 year old had hit the woodwork in matches with Middlesbrough and Manchester City in October but with his manager’s guidance he is now starting to add tangible end product to his game.

 

Goal eases the growing anxiety at Old Trafford

The West Brom goal broke the deadlock and managed to ease the growing anxiety that seems to now be commonplace at Old Trafford as goals seem hard to come by in the second year of Van Gaal’s project, and the winger also helped to do the same with a sublimely improvised volley-cross to tee up Wayne Rooney for his headed winner in the narrow Champions League victory over CSKA Moscow.

Lingard was named man of the match for that game, recognition of his role as the main source of United’s energy and spark in the final-third, and then followed that up with the same award in the match with West Brom. It capped off a superb week for the Warrington-born youngster who is now beginning to reap the rewards of his persistence with the club he has been with for fifteen years.

Loan spells with Leicester, Birmingham, Brighton and Derby County have come in that time but Lingard, whose whole family are United fans and were watching on against West Brom, has always been determined to make it with United and has had to wait patiently since signing his first professional contract in 2011.

 

Van Gaal’s faith

He failed to make a first-team appearance under Sir Alex Ferguson, nor with David Moyes who shipped him out on loan for the duration of his sole year in charge despite a bright pre-season in United’s tour of the Far East in 2013.

Van Gaal however had immediate faith, handing him a first-team debut in his first game in charge- the 1-2 loss to Swansea on the opening day of last season- but he suffered a long-term knee injury just 24 minutes into that game to rule him out for 5 months.

Despite the 2 ½ year deal that was handed to him in January as he was returning from his injury, an indication of Van Gaal’s belief in the player, Lingard was sent on loan to Derby for the remainder of the season and the signing of Depay, who starred for Van Gaal in the 2014 World Cup and top-scored for PSV Eindhoven as they won the Dutch League in 2015, made it very difficult for the 22 year old to envisage a route back into the side.

However, sharing a dressing room with the attacking talent of Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Anthony Martial, Rooney and Depay, who together cost in the region of over £100 million, the home-grown Lingard has emerged and managed to preserve United’s ailing identity as a finishing school for talent reared by themselves.

 

Home-grown youth

The record of nearly 3,800 consecutive games with at least one home-grown player in the match-day squad is still proudly running and Lingard, possibly the most exciting young player to come through at Old Trafford since Danny Welbeck in 2008, together with 18-year-old Connor Borthwick-Jackson, who made his debut in the game with West Brom, suggest the production line is still in rude health despite the recent Glazer-led mass investment on high-priced talent.

As part of the 2011 FA Youth Cup winning squad, only the second time United had won the trophy since the days of the Nevilles, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and co. in the 1990s, that also included Paul Pogba, Will Keane and Ravel Morrison, all of whom have now left United, Lingard has witnessed first-hand how easy it is to be shown the exit at a club where competition for places is at its most fierce.

 

Spot hard-earned

In assistant manager Ryan Giggs Lingard has possibly the best mentor available to him when it comes to playing on the wing for Manchester United, while Van Gaal has a reputation for embedding young players from his time at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

The 22 year old may not be as naturally talented as Mata or come with the hype and billing of Depay but he has earned his spot with hard-work and application, an understanding of what it takes to represent the club he has played for at every level.

Could he bend Roy Hodgson’s ear then? Not if Van Gaal has his say. “I would say it is much too early [for England] and we have to wait to see if he is consistent in his form” said the Dutchman.

But if consistency reaches the same level as the vibrant, intelligent displays he produced against Moscow and West Brom, he may find the England door opening sooner than he may think.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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