A good demonstration of how transformative Jesse Lingard’s recent performances for Manchester United have been is provided by rewinding barely two months to when he made his 100th appearance for the club in late November.
For a homegrown player who had been capped by England and scored the winning goal in an FA Cup final, you might have expected the milestone to generate gushing expressions of appreciation from fans. Yet the most popular response to the club’s official Twitter announcement of the academy graduate’s achievement was a more expletive-ridden version of “how the hell has that happened, then?”.
In the seven weeks since, Lingard has caught fire in a string of starring turns, has been described as “everything you want in a Manchester United player” by club legend Gary Neville and will arguably be the man most feared by managerless Stoke when they line-up at Old Trafford on Monday night.
Now, United fans could be forgiven for asking that question again.
After all, Lingard has been a valuable squad player for United in recent seasons; reliable in big games, intelligent off the ball and disciplined when carrying out instructions. But he hadn't matched that with high-production numbers where it counts.
That's changed. Lingard has scored eight goals in last 10 appearances, more than he’d ever scored in an entire season before now. With seven Premier League goals in that stretch, he has been outscored only by Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah — the division’s two outright leading scorers — since hitting his hot streak.
With four assists to his name as well, Lingard has directly been involved in 11 goals so far this season despite only becoming a regular starter for manager Jose Mourinho in the final weeks of the year. The sum total may not be staggering, but when adjusted for how long he’s actually spent on the pitch, Lingard’s name ranks alongside the best in the league. Of the top 15 scorers so far, he is the only one to have played less than 1,000 minutes.
So far this season, he is averaging a goal or an assist every 84 minutes. Discounting penalty goals, that puts him behind just three players in the Premier League; Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho, both averaging a goal or assist every 80 minutes before yesterday, and Salah who has recorded a goal or assist every 69 minutes.
No other United player is averaging under 90 minutes while established stars such as Kevin De Bruyne, Alexis Sanchez, Eden Hazard and Roberto Firmino have all kept their fans waiting at least 40 minutes more for every goal or assist they’ve produced.
Ranked alongside and above such names, it’s no wonder then that when reflecting on Lingard’s hot streak Mourinho has described Lingard as finally completing a crucial stage in his development from promising to polished.
“These boys, they jump or they don’t jump,” he said.
“One thing is to be a young talent, another is to be a very good player. Some players are not capable of that jump. From great potential young players, they go to normal players. I think Jesse is giving that jump. He is being more consistent. He is being more adaptable. He understands better the game, the different spaces, the different positions. He is going in a good direction.”
If Lingard keeps these numbers up, that direction will put him at the forefront of Gareth Southgate’s mind when picking his XI for England’s World Cup opener against Tunisia in June.
With the Three Lions boss likely to pick two forwards to play behind Harry Kane, Lingard has put the onus onto players like Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain — all of whom he has outscored — to reclaim a place above him the pecking order they held in the not-too-distant past.
On this form, you’d struggle to find many in Russia asking how it happened.