Football bristled this week at the news of Jesse Lingard’s improved contract. The 24 year-old will now be paid in excess of £100,000 per week and, as normal, that has led to some hand-wringing in the community over what he’s actually worth.
As a sidenote, maybe it’s time to re-draw these boundaries? While a £100,000/week contract was offensively decadent ten years ago, now – in relative terms at least – it seems almost to be a standard issue wage for any player with a modicum of ability. Agents are aware of exactly how deep Premier League clubs’ pockets are and they’re negotiating position has never been more favourable.
And that’s particularly true of any representative with a client at Manchester United.
Lingard is not the most talented player but, like similarly positioned squad members from the club’s more successful past, he’s extremely useful. He’s not quite Park Ji Sung and isn’t the security blanket to Jose Mourinho that the South Korean often was to Sir Alex Ferguson, but he occupies a similar place: not quite a starter, but certainly with a use over the course of what are now routinely 50-game seasons.
Furthermore, is it definitely true that Lingard isn’t that good? He’s not the quickest player, not the most skilful and he’ll likely never be a truly regular source of goals, but he seems to have been grown from Big Club DNA and, despite his limitations, has a happy knack of producing his best moments at the most important times. Admittedly, it’s difficult to quantify that value or to even accurately describe it, but whatever “it” is, Lingard is in possession; what he’s able to do on the stage is quite separate from the stage itself not being too big for him.
The consensus also seems to be that, at the age of 24, he is fully matured and his current level represents his peak. As has been shown in the past, though, age is not as animating as experience and one isn’t nearly as instructive as the other. To date, Lingard has taken part in just 121 professional club games during his career and only 44 of those have come within the Premier League. Maybe he is already operating at the apex of his potential, but it seems more likely that the player on the field today is only a formative version of what he could one day become.
That seems particularly likely given that he has had to build his United career on foundations which haven’t been particularly stable. Louis van Gaal may have given him his opportunity, initially on the opening day of the 2014/15 season before injury intervened, but the Dutchman’s football was hardly conducive to the evolution of individual attacking players. The surrounding team was often static, generally played at a low temperament, and rarely created the optimal conditions for a player of Lingard’s profile. Under Jose Mourinho, the pace may have quickened and the emphasis on moving the ball forward may have increased, but the Portuguese’s forward line still remains tentative.
It’s also been noticeable that while United have bought heavily and strengthened their team from the outside, few of the developing players who featured under either van Gaal or, latterly, Mourinho, have truly evolved. One would expect, for example, Anthony Martial’s exorbitant talent to have been amplified more than it has. Really, he remains indistinguishable from the player who arrived from Monaco and, though he must take some ownership of that stagnation, that’s descriptive of the inhibiting conditions within the side. Martial’s true flowering is still to come and, because they broadly occupy the same areas on the field, it’s logical to assume that to be the case with the other developing attacking components, too. Good news for Marcus Rashford, but also Lingard too.
What kind of player will he be once those incubating conditions are created? More than likely one who is worth a contract which, whether the public like it or not, is fairly unremarkable at a modern superclub.
Lingard isn’t destined for the game’s stratosphere and, in all likelihood, Manchester United will never win or lose on the strength of his right-foot, but that is not the sole basis of footballing worth. Although perhaps not of equivalent value in the literal sense, he’s equipped with a set of conveniences which are both highly modern and also enable his team’s dexterity: an international calibre player who supported United as boy, he’s evidently someone willing to accept whatever role he’s asked to play and to do so without ego. Add those characteristics to his technical attributes, and the sum is a utility option of not insubstantial talent who would be far harder – and more expensive – to replace than assumed.
Forget his new wage, because that’s really just a number. Forget also the sneering and snorting of the cynical masses and ignore their insistence that players without an otherwordly glint aren’t worth knowing about or paying.