It has been the most unpredictable Premier League season in history as Leicester City stamp their authority on the title race.
Jamie Vardy has been the star of the show, scoring in eleven consecutive games to break Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record while he is also the front runner for the Golden Boot award with 18 goals. Meanwhile, Tottenham have not only cemented their place in the top four but they look capable of a genuine title challenge showing consistent form that has never been associated with the north London club, who are usually seen as bottlers.
Last season’s champions Chelsea are closer to a relegation battle than a Champions League spot. Is this a sign of change in the Premier League or will the old order be restored next season?
Manchester United fans will be hoping its the latter as they have endured a largely disappointing season under Louis van Gaal – knocked out of the Champions League in the group stages and lying in fifth place, six points off a Champions League spot. It is starting to look more and more likely that Jose Mourinho may well replace Van Gaal at the end of the season. However, perhaps Van Gaal deserves a certain amount of credit for the progression of two United academy products into the first team: Jesse Lingard and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.
The United academy system has been largely criticized for seemingly falling behind other academies in Europe. United have failed to produce a crop of youngsters to be excited about since the Class of ’92. United have gained a reputation for producing and selling average young players who have gone to lesser teams, such as Josh King and Michael Keane for example, while other talents have flattered to deceive such as Tom Cleverly and Danny Welbeck.
United supporters traditionally want success with attacking football but they love to see young local academy graduates who bleed United come through and make a name for themselves at Old Trafford. Lingard and Borthwick-Jackson have shown this season that there is still talent in the United underage system as they are starting to become first team regulars with a string of impressive displays.
23-year-old Lingard had always been labelled as a late bloomer by Sir Alex Ferguson and this appears to be the case as he is finally, yet gradually, establishing himself after a number of loan spells at Championship clubs. In the 2012-2013 season Lingard was loaned out to Leicester City, who were then in the Championship, but he struggled for game time, making only five appearances that season for the Foxes.
Lingard was selected in the United squad for their 2013 pre-season tour under David Moyes and he impressed, including scoring twice in a 5-1 victory over the A-League All Stars in Sydney and also against Yokohama and Kitchee to finish the tour as United’s top scorer with four goals in four games. He had hoped to skip the loan stage and make the breakthrough at United but he was farmed out to Birmingham City.
However, he enjoyed a more successful loan spell at St. Andrews, even amazingly banging in four goals on his debut in a 4-1 victory over Sheffield Wednesday but injuries halted his progress and his loan spell was cut short before Brighton snapped him up for the second half of that season. Lingard enjoyed a consistent run of games with Brighton, scoring four goals in 17 appearances. Signs of progress were being shown.
Lingard was a surprise name in Van Gaal’s first Premier League starting eleven against Swansea City after impressing in the USA pre-season tour but he was forced off with a serious-looking injury. The injury again put a dent in his progress but his inclusion in Van Gaal’s starting eleven shows the Iron Tulip saw something he liked. But Lingard was loaned out to Derby County for the second half of the 2014-2015 season, where he managed to regain his fitness and match sharpness.
This season Lingard has finally nailed down a place at Old Trafford on the right wing, where he is very much part of Van Gaal’s plans as he keeps Memphis Depay and Adnan Januzaj out of the side. He even received an England call-up recently. Although a place at Euro 2016 may be unlikely, Lingard could challenge for an England spot again in the future.
He has been criticized for his poor finishing ability but he seems to be showing signs of improvement in that area of his game. He has recorded four goals for United this season against West Brom, Newcastle, Stoke and that spectacular finish against Chelsea respectively. United fans will be hoping to see much more of Lingard’s ‘dab’ celebration in the future.
Cameron Borthwick-Jackson is a much more unknown quantity and most pundits and fans will admit they had not heard of the left-back before this season. However, Borthwick-Jackson’s ability going forward and defensive composure for a largely inexperienced 19-year-old has stunned many people. Borthwick-Jackson’s rise to the first team can perhaps be seen as opportune due to long-term injuries to Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo. However, that should not disguise how impressive the youngster has been.
He made his first team debut against West Brom, coming on as a substitute for Rojo late on, leaving many viewers scratching their heads as to who he was. Borthwick-Jackson began to build up his appearance tally, impressing Van Gaal despite a nervy performance in the 2-1 defeat at Bournemouth, although he was helped by an injury-hit United defence. Since then, Borthwick-Jackson has produced largely faultless displays, including an early substitute appearance at Anfield in the pressure cooker of a United-Liverpool game.
He showed early signs of nerves by struggling with a simple throw in, leading to chants of “Who the ‘f**k are you?” by the home crowd, but he responded in the best possible way by producing an incredibly mature performance. In fact, United struggled down the left hand side before he came on as Liverpool had plenty of joy against Matteo Darmian but the Italian’s switch to right back and Borthwick-Jackson’s appearance at left back tightened things up allowing United to eventually grind out a 1-0 win against their rivals.
Borthwick-Jackson has also been praised for his impressive crossing ability, with his crosses notably leading to United goals against Stoke and Chelsea. He also impressed when marking Willian against the Stamford Bridge club while his last-ditch attempt to tackle Diego Costa nearly saved United from dropping points after a number of errors led to the Chelsea equalizer, but Costa just managed to keep his feet despite the left back’s best efforts.
Borthwick-Jackson recently received high praise from former United left back Arthur Albiston who claims the youngster has the character to perform at the top level:
“If you are level-headed and a solid performer then the step up can be a bit more comfortable to make,” Albiston told the Manchester Evening News.
“You can go under the radar a bit more easily. Cameron is very steady. He plays the game simply. He has a natural defensive side to his game, keeps the ball well but knows that when he is in the last third you have to get it into the forwards.
“He’s not fazed by anything and that has certainly helped him after being thrown in at the deep end.”
United supporters will hope other young players can follow Lingard and Borthwick-Jackson’s examples, including strikers, James Wilson, who is on loan at Brighton, and Will Keane, who smashed in five goals for the U-21s on Monday night in a 7-0 thrashing of Norwich City.
A big question is, would these young players get an opportunity under Jose Mourinho? That question is best saved for another day, a debate which deserves an article to itself.
For now, United supporters can take some comfort that the future may not be that bleak after all.
Vincent O’Shea, Pundit Arena