The race is on for Jesse Lingard.
The Manchester United forward’s loan move to West Ham is threatening to be such a spectacular success for all parties concerned that, come the summer, he could be one of the most in-demand players in the Premier League.
A combination of Brexit, Covid-hit transfer budgets and a contract that will have just a year left to run has the potential to create the perfect storm for Lingard, whose prospects have been in decline since he was a starter for England’s losing World Cup semi-finalists in 2018.
The 28-year-old looks rejuvenated at West Ham, is spearheading their unlikely pursuit of Champions League qualification and, right now, looks so good that it might become a problem for David Moyes.
An option to buy was never on the table when Lingard convinced Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to let him go out on loan last month. United’s manager remains a big admirer of the player he handed a debut when in charge of the reserves and had earmarked for the role Bruno Fernandes has made his own before Lingard’s form plummeted.
He has fans outside of Old Trafford, too. Not least Gareth Southgate, who was eager for him to get regular playing time to put him in contention for an England comeback at this summer’s Euros.
Jose Mourinho likes him, too. So much so that Lingard thought a move to Tottenham was a possibility last summer, if Dele Alli’s proposed switch to Paris Saint-Germain had gone through.
Three goals in four appearances for a West Ham side that are unbeaten with him in the team has well and truly put him in the shop window – and there will be no shortage of suitors if he maintains that form.
A decision is still to be made by United, but they know they have to either sell or offer Lingard a new contract this summer. The expectation is that he will leave - and even with 12 months remaining on his deal, his loan move may serve to maximise United’s valuation.
Add to that new restrictions on overseas players and clubs still counting the cost of more than a season without fans and Lingard will look very attractive when the transfer window opens.
West Ham should expect to be part of an auction for the player who is driving them towards the top four. In that sense, the Champions League, or European football of any description, could be key to keeping Lingard, whose current deal is believed to be in excess of £100,000-a-week.
But Moyes will not need convincing.
The Scot promoted him to United’s first-team squad during his short-lived reign at Old Trafford and was impressed enough to think he could have a major impact at West Ham. A glowing endorsement from Solskjaer only strengthened that belief.
There is a consistent theme. Those who have worked with Lingard rate him highly. The abuse he receives on social media does not reflect the wider view of him within the game.
Solskjaer was reluctant to let him go – despite handing him just 179 minutes of action this season. He has been determined not to give up on a player whose raw talent he saw as key to his system when opting against a move for Fernandes in the summer of 2019. He believed Lingard’s energy in a No10 role would be crucial to United’s press.
Family issues contributed to Lingard’s dramatic dip in performance levels, even if his physical numbers on the training ground remained high. The arrival of Fernandes, combined with Mason Greenwood’s emergence, effectively pushed him out of the first-team picture.
That opened the door for West Ham, who will be desperate to ensure he does not head straight back out of it at the end of the season.