World Cup 2018: Jesse Lingard opens up on Gareth Southgate, his best position and Andres Iniesta comparisons

At England’s training base in Repino, ahead of their opening Group G game against Tunisia, Lingard talked about that Iniesta comparison for the first time

Jack Pitt-Brooke
St Petersburg
Thursday 14 June 2018 17:27
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England team arrive in Russia for World Cup

What do we want from our young English footballers?

We want them to be as good as they can be, of course, to aim as high as the very top of the game and then to try to get there.

But we also want them to be open to the world, to listen and to learn. Especially when they are being taught to model their games on the greats. And especially when they are asked to play in a non-English way.

When Jesse Lingard was a skinny teenager in the Manchester United academy, held back because the other boys his age were always bigger, Rene Meulensteen always had high hopes for him. Lingard worked with Meulensteen from the age of eight, always enjoying the technical skill-based ‘Coerver Method’ that Meulensteen brought with him to United.

An old-fashioned 4-4-2 coach might not have done, but Meulensteen saw something special in Lingard, in his touch and awareness, and believed that he could be England’s version of Andres Iniesta, as ambitious as that might sound. “The player that weaves between the lines,” as Meulensteen explained recently to Eurosport. “Able to create chances through combinations with other players, and being able to beat a man, which is what he does now.”

Lingard is a very good player now - not Iniesta yet, but who is? - and on Thursday afternoon, at England’s training base in Repino, he talked about that Iniesta comparison for the first time. It takes some nerve from a player, especially an England player, to name an inspiration that good but Lingard willingly pointed to the Barcelona legend as someone he has tried to learn from.

“I used to watch Iniesta a lot, I liked him,” Lingard said. “You just pick up little things of what they do and try to put it into your game.”

Especially that instinctive gift for finding space that is Iniesta’s oxygen, and that is Lingard’s job in this England team. “It’s just the way [Iniesta] graces the pitch,” Lingard said. “He’s silky, an intelligent footballer. And people have said I’m an intelligent footballer, so I have to learn off the other players that are intelligent and play in the same position as well.”

Lingard has always played in that attacking midfield space, between the opposition defence and attack. That was the result of his development, too small to compete physically with his age-group so forced to try to evade tackles instead. He had to be brave but he learned the skills that make him such an elusive footballer today.

“It is always something I have done,” Lingard explained. “With me being small from a young age, I had to try and keep out of the battles and the tackles. So to play in between the lines, with space and time on the ball, that was where I was most dangerous.”

Can Lingard become England's Iniesta?

This summer, at the age of 25, Lingard is benefiting from all of this. From United’s trust in him as a boy. From Meulensteen’s coaching and advice, not least that he could aim as high as mimicking one of the greatest midfielders of all time. From his own hard work, taking the plunge moving from Warrington at the age of 12 into digs in Manchester, as part of his Manchester United Schoolboy Scholarship.

Gareth Southgate had always rated Lingard, back from when he was being loaned out by Manchester United before breaking into the first team. In a press conference at The Grove hotel two weeks ago, Southgate remembered a game in October 2013 when he went to see a 20-year-old Lingard barely get a kick for Birmingham City in a 4-0 defeat to Leeds United. He did not look much like Iniesta that night but Southgate explained that he was actually playing too well - “operating on a different thinking-level to the rest of the team” - and that they just could not read his runs.

But Southgate has always wanted his teams to play an open, expansive, intelligent game and he loved picking Lingard for his under-21 side. And when he took over the seniors in October 2016, Lingard was straight in.

Two years on, Southgate has built a team geared to getting the best out of Lingard, almost more than anyone else. This 3-5-2 with one holding midfielder and two going forward gives Lingard to do what he has always loved, ghosting between the opposition lines just like his hero Iniesta used to do.

Southgate has helped to bring the best out of Lingard

“It’s a position between their midfield and their defenders,” Lingard explained. “Where it will be hard for a defenders to come and pick you up. But it is also playing behind the midfielder, who is always on the half turn and it’s hard for him to pick you up. So it is a space between their defence and their midfield.”

What’s more is that Lingard is not alone in that space but has Dele Alli to occupy it too. “It’s good, we have a good understanding,” Lingard said. “We play off each other and I think we both like to make runs beyond the striker, which is good. So we have got to pick and choose our times to do that.”

Alli is different player with a different story but one just as gifted, instinctive, able to find space on the half-turn and to run in behind. Between them they are quite the combination, a testament to the ambition, imagination and learning power of this young squad.

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