By completing the signing of Alexis Sanchez, Manchester United waved goodbye to a previous Jose Mourinho signing. After the heralded arrival of the Bundesliga’s player of the year, expectations were high for Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Alexis joins Man United
Despite the £26m transfer fee, the brilliance of his scorpion kick against Sunderland or the importance of his crucial goal in the Europa League final, Mourinho is now cutting his losses on the Armenian, using the player as a makeweight in the deal to bring Sanchez to Old Trafford.
On the face of it, it looks as if the Chilean superstar is behind Mkhitaryan’s fall from grace. Naturally, when a player of his quality becomes available you do whatever it takes to bring him to the football club. If another has to lose their place, so be it. Hard luck, Henrikh.
Yet Mkhitaryan’s Old Trafford career was dwindling long before this sensational swap deal was ever on the cards. The former Borussia Dortmund man was already struggling to break back into Mourinho’s team. Oftentimes he even failed to make the bench. Despite starting the season in good touch, providing five assists in the first three league games, Mkhitaryan has struggled for form. Once he was out, he was never likely to get back in.
Enter Jesse Lingard.
The Warrington-born academy graduate has been in exceptional form for Manchester United this season. Often dismissed as a player whose place in the squad has been held primarily through a misguided sense of sentimentality, Lingard has taken ‘the jump’ as Mourinho would say, elevating himself to new heights and establishing himself as a valuable member of the Manchester United first team.
“These boys – they either jump or they don't jump. It's one thing to be a young talent, and another thing is to be a very good player.”
After starting just once before the end of October, Lingard has now started 10 of the last 11 Premier League games, scoring seven goals in the process. After defeat away to Chelsea, United faced a pivotal week that involved two tricky away matches. Lingard stole the show. His mazy run from well inside his own half against Watford drew comparisons with Lionel Messi, while his performance against Arsenal produced two goals and the audacity to dance on the Emirates pitch after his first goal put United in control of the game in the opening stages.
Since replacing Mkhitaryan in the team, both he and United have taken their game to another level. Despite some obviously disappointing results in December, Mourinho’s side have looked slicker, more cohesive and far more creative in attacking areas, with Lingard at the core of most of that good work. In contrast, Mkhitaryan has appeared in just four Premier League matches since that defeat to Chelsea at the start of November, starting just once and playing no more than 65 minutes on any occasion.
Lingard has always been regarded as an intelligent footballer. Those who defended him and advocated for his inclusion when he wasn’t producing at an elite level would often cite his movement off the ball, willingness to run, eye for a pass and tactical flexibility. His ability to play off both flanks, through the middle or even in midfield was often a huge boon for a manager willing to keep him around.
Mourinho's faith in Lingard rewarded
So Mourinho did keep him around, and my, how he is being rewarded now. Lingard’s run of seven goals in 11 league games obscures the wider qualities he’s brought to the side through his all-round game. If we ignore the goals, which believe me is difficult given the quality of most of them, and we focus more broadly on his overall contribution, the profound impact of his performances on United’s results and, almost more importantly, his teammates, becomes abundantly clear.
"I think it's my time now. I knew we had to step up and kind of take charge. That's what I've done.
"The goals have come, which has given me confidence. Each game I just want to score now, that's my main objective."
Sadly, it also provides clarity behind Mourinho’s reasoning for dropping Mkhitaryan entirely.
A willing runner, Lingard is the perfect no.10 for a quick team that thrives on the speed of each attacking transition. With Romelu Lukaku in front of him, Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial on the left and Paul Pogba behind him, Lingard joins an attacking force that is at its best on the counter-attack. The renaissance of Luke Shaw has only strengthened the identity of this team, with the Englishman providing width on one side, while Antonio Valencia remains a constant on United’s right.
The intelligence of his movement, for a long time his most celebrated quality, has brought a fluidity to Manchester United that had been missing for almost the entirety of Mourinho’s reign. His ability to float between the lines, move into wide areas, interchange with Rashford, Juan Mata, even Romelu Lukaku at times, makes it harder for opposition defenders to track United’s forward players. It is through Lingard that United can so often find an outlet, whether by giving him the ball directly, or by using the vacant passing lanes that his movement so often opens up.
"This role, further inside, allows me to be closer to the striker, to get in the box, create more things and obviously have more shots at goal.”
After all that, when you add in the sensational solo goal against Watford, the slick finish at the Emirates, his backheeled flick against Burnley or the beautiful curling strike against Everton, Lingard has finally started to add the end product to his game. All that promise is finally starting to become reality.