Lingard's return boosts United's squad depth
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s aim as Manchester United manager is to win trophies, and progress towards that objective is often spoken in terms of closing the gap to the top of the Premier League table.
The return of Jesse Lingard to training boosts our squad depth and with it makes that aim more realistic. Two first team-ready footballers have been signed this summer, too, in Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho and with that, competition for places has risen, and the quality of the overall squad has grown.
One of the perpetual conversations for any football fan is about the best starting XI for any given team. At Manchester United, it’s a staple debate, argued about from week to week. Few will ever agree.
The reality is that trophies are not determined by a best XI, they are decided by squads. The team that rolls off the tongue for our Treble-winning 1998-99 squad is Schmeichel; Neville, Stam, Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Scholes, Keane, Giggs; Yorke, Cole. That team only played together once, in a 1-0 victory against Coventry City.
Our double-winning 1994 side is another one you can pick out of your head: Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Keane, Ince, Giggs; Cantona and Hughes. That team played together six times. The crowning glory of Sir Alex Ferguson’s third great team was the 2008 Champions League and the team who started the final had never played as an XI before.
This is all to say: who is or is not in the best XI is often ultimately irrelevant. More important is who is in the squad and how that squad is used.
Solskjaer’s business in the transfer market has clearly been directed at improving both the starting line-up and squad, with Alex Telles coming in to provide competition for Luke Shaw and Edinson Cavani adding firepower to the frontline as Odion Ighalo had offered back-up before. There have been others. Varane and Sancho come not to be options off the bench, but their arrivals mean more high-quality players are competing for same number of starting spots.
The benefits of squad rotation are enormous and well-documented. Tiredness leads to mistakes; players fluff a pass back, send a shot wide of the post or choose a wrong pass. As fans, we can hardly comprehend the sheer level of concentration required at the elite level of football. Freshness for players is not just about how tired your legs feel, but also your mental state.
The recognition given to the importance of sleep and nutrition in football only grows with each year and football’s understanding of how to keep players fresh throughout a season does too. We’ve therefore seen a massive rise in the amount of squad rotation in the Premier League.
In the 1995/96 season, the average Premier League player played the equivalent of 19 full matches. By 2015/16, that figure had dropped to 13 matches. Squads have got bigger and playing time has decreased. That doesn’t necessarily mean the big players start games less, but it may mean they are brought off during a game more often.
There is more than one way to manage your squad en route to becoming Premier League champions. Last season’s Manchester City squad had only two ‘core’ outfield players, those being players who played more than 80 per cent of all minutes in the Premier League. They had nine ‘rotation’ players (those who played between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of all minutes).
The previous season’s champions, Liverpool, had a fundamentally different makeup to their squad. Seven of their players played more than 80 per cent of minutes and three were ‘rotation’ players. United’s squad from last season is somewhere in the middle with six ‘core’ players and four ‘rotation’ players.
United finding a way to rotate the squad at suitable moments will be the key to the season. Bringing players in and improving players with coaching are two ways of having a better squad. A third is by having better player fitness throughout the season. With good squad rotation and depth, you team is better at its best and better even at its worst.
Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba were fresh against Leeds last Saturday and we saw what they can both do when that’s the case. We’re all aware that Fernandes is a player who loves to play non-stop, but the benefits of rotation and rest are undoubted nevertheless.
In the final seven games of last season, Bruno was contributing two fewer Shot Creating Actions per 90 minutes than he had been in the opening 10 games of the season. It was a trend that developed over the season. He was still one of the league’s most prolific creators, but not to the same extent.
And so into the frame comes Jesse Lingard, our former FA Cup-winning goalscorer who spent the second half of last season on loan at West Ham, rediscovered his confidence, his smile and his ability to perform on the big stage with consistency. He had more shots on target per game than Fernandes or Rashford did at United and was scoring and assisting at a more regular rate.
It is of course a new season and no one will expect him to replicate exactly the scintillating form he showed at West Ham, but he comes back in with a point to prove and a chance to show it. Lingard offers something slightly different to Fernandes, Pogba or United’s other creative outlets. He’s a good presser, has a high work rate, carries the ball well and enjoyed a prolific spell at West Ham by regularly shooting and creating a load of chances per game – as many as Fernandes in that final chunk of the season.
United will try to find the sweet spot and Lingard could be crucial to that – as could Donny van De Beek. The ideal scenario is having starting players kept fresh because the rotating players offer seriously good options from the start or off the bench.
Solskjaer showed his eagerness to rotate last season, especially at the start of the campaign when no fewer than nine changes were made to the starting team in between every one of our first five games. Beyond that, three to four changes were made to most line-ups. Expect similar this season as the fixtures build up and this time, the quality will have stepped up a notch.
Stats sourced from FBref.com