Michael Antonio called them ‘Backstreet Moyes’ but when the West Ham players joined Jesse Lingard in mimicking a musical band as a goal celebration, it was about more than comic effect.
Lingard, who joined the Hammers on loan from Manchester United in January, has been the shot in the arm the club needed in their unlikely Champions League push. Celebrating with dance moves has become his trademark, and when he netted against Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend, it felt like a seminal moment. Lingard, who endured a terrible 2020, is enjoying 2021.
The England international’s game is built on expression and exuberance. At his best, which he has been showing over the last few weeks, he can inspire players around him and radiate confidence. It was so vital that he left Old Trafford where a lack of game time was beginning to stifle his career and he is certainly dispelling myths which have developed over his personality and willingness to take football seriously.
Because his outlook on the pitch, and in life generally, is so deeply connected to having fun, his critics have suggested the dancing, his brands on Instagram and his love for a joke are holding him back. It is a tale as old as time; a footballer who doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of someone developed in England gets criticised for irrelevant reasons which are claimed to impact their performance.
That isn’t to say Lingard doesn’t play for the benefit of the team; he does, but he isn’t somebody who will be shackled in order to keep shape or structure. He tries things and can add flair to any game. But at 28 years of age, he needed to arrest the slide in his career which came from not playing, and take responsibility for getting back on track again. He has done that, and his impact has been instant.
Concerns over David Moyes’ attacking options after the sale of Sebastien Haller to Ajax have been alleviated by two goals for Jesse Lingard in his first three games for West Ham. Although a long-term solution is definitely needed, the hope is that, in the meantime, Antonio can lead the line supported by the plethora of playmakers behind him. Lingard has galvanised the team but Said Benrahma, Andriy Yarmolenko and Manuel Lanzini are all options for Moyes.
Perhaps there is an imbalance in his squad, but they will all have to pull together to compete the job as they hunt European football. If they do, the striker West Ham will eventually attract will be of a much higher calibre; the Champions League may still be a dream, but they are in the mix and that in itself is an achievement.
Lingard’s situation back at Old Trafford is complex. He is not out on loan to gain experience or match fitness in the hope of returning and usurping Bruno Fernandes, he is attempting to lay the groundwork of a rebirth elsewhere.
Of course, with the delayed European Championships finally looking like going ahead this summer, Jesse Lingard will hope his West Ham form will get noticed by England boss Gareth Southgate but, in the long-run, a move to a club playing in Europe will be his aim. Switching to the London Stadium permanently may just suit him down to the ground, but it’ll become a whole lot more attractive from his perspective if West Ham can secure a top six finish.
The joy and freedom he has played with recently only furthers the debate around players sticking or twisting in their careers, particularly those playing well enough at smaller clubs and impressing the bigger ones. Jesse Lingard is not only on the team sheet every week at West Ham, but he is clearly the key player whom everything goes through. His performances became static at Manchester United and there wasn’t the same level of trust in him to take games by the scruff of the neck. The truth is, Fernandes and Paul Pogba did it better.
Playing at a higher level, at bigger stadia and for better pay packets is something that every player should consider, but there are so many examples where ‘the grass isn’t always greener’ is applicable. Somebody like Wilfried Zaha, perhaps, has outgrown his surroundings at Crystal Palace, but even he is unlikely to receive the same treatment and standing he gets at Selhurst Park in any team that buys him.
Football isn’t all about winning things, as Lingard has shown, enjoying the game can give a player a whole new lease of life. Zaha, of course, took the leap to Manchester United as Sir Alex Ferguson’s final signing, but things didn’t work out well at all.
There are reasons for stepping up to a higher level. Plenty have done it and succeeded and plenty more will follow that path. In some ways, though, it feels like the only expected route, as though everyone should aim to play for a top club and if they don’t then they are a failure. There are downsides to joining big squads, where the competition is intense and it becomes easy to get lost in a sea of options.
Jesse Lingard is thriving at West Ham because he has been through that and come out from the other side. Perhaps others should look at him and think before following the bright lights and big promises to a top club, only to see their on-pitch personality and general development begin to stagnate. There is much to be said for being a big fish in a small pond.