August 27, 2017
Three games into the new Premier League season and neither Marouane Fellaini nor Jesse Lingard have started a match for Manchester United. Fellaini made a significant contribution to United’s Europa League success – including a goal in the semi-final and a colossal performance in the final – while Lingard is an Academy graduate, a United fan, one of us. Yet at the start of this season, there was a large sub-section of United’s support that rejoiced as neither #14 nor #27 were read out as part of the line-up.
Both have been the target of derision in recent seasons. Last year, frustrated by United’s inability to turn draws into wins, supporters turned on Lingard and Fellaini with an unforgivable vitriol. Frustration turned to anger, in part because United were not winning games, but also because the inclusion of this particular pair was often at the expense of more creative, expansive talents.
Despite his excellent qualities, Jesse Lingard’s selection was often in place of Anthony Martial, a fan favourite at Old Trafford and a player who has consistently proved his capacity for more goals and assists than Lingard. Meanwhile, Fellaini, a player trusted by Mourinho more than most, was rarely selected ahead of a worthier candidate but was often a troublesome inclusion nonetheless. His limited qualities as a footballer often restricted Paul Pogba’s influence on a football match. As United struggled to break team’s down and limped along in sixth position, Fellaini and Lingard became scapegoats for United’s woes. It was simply unforgivable that they should play if it meant inhibiting Martial or Pogba.
Now though, Manchester United are winning matches. At the end of August they will sit atop the Premier League, three wins out of three, 10 goals scored and not a single one conceded. So will United fans start to appreciate the more maligned members of the squad now?
It certainly appears so. There was a notable change at Old Trafford yesterday. Once United went ahead, Mourinho, as he so often does, made changes to protect the lead. On came Fellaini and Lingard. Fellaini, brought on to add steel and discipline to the midfield, was roared onto the field by those in the stands. Every time Leicester launched the ball forward, it was Fellaini that would win the header and repel the attack. Each time he towered over his opponent, he was met with a wall of noise, a roaring appreciation of his efforts.
It may be simplistic to suggest that supporters will tolerate or cheer just about anything when their team is winning, but it could genuinely be no more significant than that. It could, however, indicate the development and evolution of Manchester United’s squad under Jose Mourinho. With Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba forming a formidable partnership in midfield (with Ander Herrera an able deputy on the bench) fans will no longer fear Fellaini disrupting any creative momentum as a feature of the starting XI. Instead, he can be viewed as a man with certain qualities, a physicality, and reliability who can be utilised in specific situations throughout a season. Et voila, suddenly United fans can appreciate and applaud him when he is brought on to see out a game, rather than moan and groan and seethe angrily as he slows down another attack or forces United into a long ball strategy.
A similar phenomenon is visible with Jesse Lingard. Last season he scored just once in the Premier League, providing two further assists. Yet he started 18 matches, was given chance after chance and rarely did enough to justify his selection. Especially as United were continuing to dominate matches without finding that killer pass or killer goal that could break the whole game open and claim an important three points.
Again, things are different this season. Mourinho has found the balance he was after. With the foundation created by Pogba and Matic in midfield, Mourinho has been able to show faith in a more expansive, more creative front four that has included Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford or Juan Mata behind Romelu Lukaku. With United in free scoring, dominant form, Lingard has missed out. What his absence will do, however, is refocus a supporter’s mind on what the player can do. Brought on in the closing stages, supporters witnessed a cameo of his best qualities. Lingard worked hard, moved the ball quickly and showed great intelligence and awareness with his movement both on and off the ball. He even capped his performance with an assist.
Like Fellaini, I wonder if Lingard will benefit from being a squad player. His quality is evident, his work rate is evident, his love for the club is evident. His is a story that United fans should be delighted by and desperate to see succeed. Maybe, with Mourinho and United no longer reliant on their services, supporters might just be able to appreciate these guys for what they do bring to the team, rather than lambasting them for what they don’t.