First published in December 2017.
Between them, Arsenal and Manchester United comprise quite the cast of stars. Ahead of Saturday’s game, all of the individual contests of note involved players who exist within the game’s stratosphere: Paul Pogba, David De Gea, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and so on. United may be the wealthier club and might shop more often in the superstar boutiques, but Arsene Wenger is hardly unfamiliar with that part of town.
De Gea was probably the story from The Emirates, producing a body of 90-minute work which stands up to anything seen in Europe this season. United’s cutting edge, however, came from Jesse Lingard, the player nobody talked about before the game and the one who is always an afterthought whenver their squad is discussed.
Saturday evening wasn’t reason enough to rewrite what we know to be true: Lingard is a good player rather than an exceptional one and he’s never likely to be a first-choice for Manchester United or even England. Nevertheless, he’s an example of something which seems to transcend football’s evolution: for as long as the game is played, successful teams will have that player.
You know the one: never complains about being left out, never seems to play the same position twice in the same season and yet has a habit of influencing games at key moments. For Lingard on Saturday, that was with the second and third goals, which rewarded his running and willingness to go beyond his teammates into scoring positions.
For United generally, that’s a list of players which, even just within the Premier League era, contains Park Ji Sung, Jesper Blomqvist, Darren Fletcher and Phil Neville and, charitably, might also be extended to include John O’Shea. Even in ordinary company none of them were remarkable and yet removing almost any of them from United’s recent history would would leave a hole somewhere.
This is a player type which never seems to go out of fashion – nor is it exclusive to one club. Arsenal’s Invincibles periodically called on Edu in 2003-04 and also the ageing Ray Parlour, who had made an unlikely adaption to Arsene Wenger’s methods. Similarly, a year later, Jiri Jarosik started 11 Premier League games for Jose Mourinho’s eventual champions, with Alexey Smertin appearing in 25 games across all competitions. For a contemporary example, look at the role Fabian Delph is currently playing at Manchester City: not good enough to win an outright place, he possesses the mental characterstics and technical dexterity to be dropped into and excel within an unfamiliar role.
Further afield, Barcelona’s Sergi Roberto seems destined for a similar career. While never likely to be an outright first-choice at either full-back or in midfield, Roberto is content to shift his shape to become whatever component is required. When he scored the final goal in that remarkable game with Paris Saint-Germain at Camp Nou at the beginning of the year, he was sharing a pitch with Leo Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez, and yet there was something inevitable about seeing his dangling leg prod the ball past Kevin Trapp. A useful player doing highly useful things…
Of course, these sorts of players aren’t critical in that kind of literal sense all the time, specialising more often in flowing into the cracks which develop across the course of 50-60 game season. They are footballing polyfilla, if you will, and though they may not always provide definite evidence of their worth with goals or assists, at the very least they tend to allow the form of other players to continue uninterrupted in spite of injuries or suspensions.
Would Paul Pogba have been so prominent on Saturday evening if Lingard, playing to allow Jose Mourinho to make an elaborate point to Henrikh Mkhitaryan, hadn’t provided those shuttling runs between midfield and attack? Unlikely. Would the second and third goals have been scored by a different, but notionally superior player? Again – probably not.
Lingard provided a vivid example of something which continues to be true: successful football teams will always be a balance between egos, stardust and those players who possess the humility to know their role and have the capacity to apply their usefulness in short, intermittent bursts.