It's April 2021, and the Premier league's most in-form players are Jesse Lingard and Kelechi Iheanacho. Go back one year, and that would have been an utterly ludicrous statement.
Well, go back to January, and you'd be laughed at. But that's exactly what has happened.
Two players woefully short of form, finding a spark that elevates them into the top tier. Welcome to Rejuvenated: The Jesse Lingard and Kelechi Iheanacho Show!
From Manchester to London
In the 2018/19, 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons combined, Jesse Lingard scored just 5 goals in 49 Premier League appearances for Manchester United. Since joining West Ham on loan, he has 8 goals in 9 appearances. It's fair to say no one really expected him to be this good.
Jesse Lingard never really reached the heights people expected him to. After four Championship loans, he finally got his first-team chance back in 2015/16. Some flashy tricks, some encouraging play, and a few match-winning performances followed. He was labelled as one with great potential. Yet, despite primarily being an attacking midfielder, he has never really scored more than 8 goals in a Premier League season. He's always been on the cusp of producing top quality football, without never really reaching that level. So much so, Lingard's potential became an internet meme.
After a couple of disastrous season, it seemed like his time at the top level of football was finally up. He would just peter out, joining a mid-level Premier League side and living out his career with occasional flashes of brilliance. But all that seems like talk of yesteryear. New and improved Jesse Lingard is the talk of the town. Clubs are preparing to battle it out for his signature in case Manchester United, with Bruno Fernandes at the helm, decide he is surplus to their requirements. Naturally, surprise Champions League qualification chasers West Ham are eager to sign him permanently after his performances.
Jesse spurs on West Ham
David Moyes's West Ham were predicted to be primed for relegation to the Championship this season. They only just about survived last season. No one expected them to be near the top, particularly under Moyes. The Scot is still largely remembered for his hapless time as Manchester United coach following in Sir Alex Ferguson's footsteps. His spell with Real Sociedad and his previous stint with West Ham a couple years ago hardly did anything to correct that. But this time around, he has proved his doubters wrong.
For a start, their transfer policy this season has been good. The underperforming Sebastien Haller and Felipe Anderson were culled from the squad, clearing the wage bill. Last season's winter arrivals have been fantastic however. Jarrod Bowen and Tomas Soucek are vital parts of this energetic West Ham side. The Spaniard Pablo Fornals has come into his own after an underwhelming first season in England. Said Benrahma is an electric addition, with the former Brentford man bringing some trickery and pace into the West Ham attack. It's Michail Antonio who has held it all together, of course. He has become a traditional target man, who bullies opposing defenders and holds the ball up well. The right-back Vladimir Coufal is another top signing secured for a cut-price fee. And finally Craig Dawson, panned initially as a horrible signing, has proved to be an astute acquisition on West Ham's part!
The final piece of the puzzle
They were missing a goalscoring midfielder. For all their capabilities, Declan Rice, Tomas Soucek and Mark Noble aren't really goalscorers. Soucek, of course, has got quite a few goals, but they have mostly been from set pieces. Jesse Lingard has provided another dimension to this West Ham attack. In 10 games, he has scored 9 goals - one more than what he managed in his most prolific season before this. Even as a mostly resolute West Ham have started falling back into its old destructive defensive habits, Lingard's goals have been a welcome cushion.
He has found his way back to Gareth Southgate's England squad as well. When England last announced their squad in November of last year, Lingard was very much out of the conversation. He was way below the pecking order with the likes of Grealish, Mount, Foden and Maddison grabbing the headlines. Yet Lingard has forced himself back into the conversation with two good months at West Ham. This is Lingard at his confident best. He makes good runs, gets into the spaces, and finds the finish.
West Ham have fallen a little bit behind in recent weeks, but if not for Lingard's goals, that fall would have been harder. He opened the scoring against Arsenal in a game where the Hammers went from 3-0 up to drawing 3-3. He went on to score three goals in the next two games against Wolves and Leicester City. Both were narrow 3-2 wins, and Lingard had a crucial role in them. The Hammers' defensive wobbles were finally too much to overcome in their 3-2 loss against Newcastle, but Lingard did score from the spot before Joe Willock's winner for the Toons.
Lingard has struggled in the past few years. Injuries and loss of form impacted his mental health negatively, and the jokes and ridicule certainly did not help. But he has shown the importance of staying strong and building mental fortitude. All it may take for a struggling player to improve is one move. If he returns to Manchester United, he will return with renewed confidence and swagger. He won't return as an inferior midfielder making up the number while Bruno Fernandes racks up the goals. He'll return as a player who is ready to make his mark with the club where he came through as a youngster.
Iheanacho finds his feet
When you're scoring goals for Manchester City, people take notice. When you're a teenager scoring goals for Manchester City, people sit up and dub you the next 'exciting teenager' breaking into a team filled with stars.
It was a breakthrough season for Kelechi Iheanacho, with the Nigerian forward scoring 8 times in the 2015/16 season from 26 appearances, most of which were short cameos from the substitutes' bench.
Despite the excitement, he wasn't able to keep it up, and the next season was not as good. Only four goals followed in the entire season, and he was sold in the summer of 2017.
In his first two seasons at the club, he scored just 4 goals in over 50 Premier League appearances.
His lack of goals saw many consign him to one-season wonder status. He became a bit-part player, who would only feature as a last resort. Leicester's luck with strikers has been bad, with big signings like Andrej Kramaric and Islam Slimani failing to fire.
Maybe that's part of why Iheanacho has survived this long at the King Power despite dwindling attacking returns. He was better last season, scoring five times in just 20 appearances, most of which were again from the bench.
Star of 2021
It is in 2021, that Iheanacho seems to have finally found his feet. He scored his first of the season in a 2-0 win over Fulham in February. He followed that up with equalisers against Burnley and Brighton, and a sensational hat-trick against Sheffield United. That was his first hat-trick in the Premier League and it was a well-taken one.
Last season, Leicester were in the same position as they are this time around, but they ended up fifth, outside the Champions League places. A lot of that was down to a lack of form for the forwards. Jamie Vardy's goals had gone dry, and Ayoze Perez wasn't able to play the role he was expected to. Add in key injuries, and Leicester's slide was quick.
This season, their trajectory has been similar. Vardy hasn't scored a goal since January. Harvey Barnes and James Justin are out with long-term injuries, while Maddison, Perez, Ndidi and Castagne have been in and out of the side. But this time, they have Iheanacho to pick up the slack.
The Nigerian has won three games for his side, rescued a point, and almost single-handedly completed a fight-back against West Ham, where his double wasn't enough to overturn a three-goal deficit. His form in the FA Cup has also propelled Leicester to a first final since 1969. He scored against Brighton in the fifth round, and his double sunk Manchester United in the quarter-finals. It was Iheanacho again who scored the only goal of the semi-final against Southampton. Leicester, who have never won the FA Cup, have a chance to adding that title when they take on Chelsea in May.
Crucially, however, Iheanacho's form hasn't come in Vardy's absence. Instead, they have both combined well to enhance the Foxes' attack. It was Vardy who raced away from the defender and put the ball into the box, from which Iheanacho scored the goal that won the semi-final. Vardy has grown better with age, and he is still fast and fit. But in the past, his goal droughts have been costly for Leicester. This time, he is able to use his all-round game to help his side, and the goals will surely flow again at some point.
Don't write anyone off
Lingard and Iheanacho have certainly proved one thing: no one should be written off. If you have the tools to succeed, then the slightest of changes can create a big difference in form. These are players who were forgotten, consigned as flops who would never reach the heights they were once expected to. But they have proved the detractors wrong with hard work and good form.
Always back your players, then, and support them.