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Lingard's Seoul switch threatens to fall flat after slow start

Jesse Lingard has yet to start a game since joining FC Seoul in February (Jung Yeon-je)
Jesse Lingard has yet to start a game since joining FC Seoul in February (Jung Yeon-je)

Jesse Lingard said he wanted to enjoy his football again after moving to South Korea, but the former Manchester United ace has struggled for form and fitness and been publicly criticised by his new coach.

It is early days, the 31-year-old attacking midfielder having made the surprise decision to sign for FC Seoul in early February on a free transfer.

But the former England international is yet to start a game and failed so far to justify his side's billing as "a player with the biggest name value in the 41-year history of the K League".

Lingard has been restricted to three substitute appearances for his new club and missed last weekend's game with a knee injury.

Fans and media are beginning to wonder when Lingard, who won 32 caps for his country and played at the 2018 World Cup, will make an impact.

"Fans are happy with him so far -- he's got a big name, positive on ticket sales," Korean football writer Hong Jae-min told AFP.

"But I'm not sure (how long) he can enjoy his honeymoon."

Lingard had been without a club since leaving Nottingham Forest last summer and said joining Seoul on a two-year deal was "a new beginning" after a difficult spell.

He was given an early wake-up call by coach Kim Gi-dong after making his third appearance for Seoul last month.

Kim said he had considered hauling Lingard off again after bringing him on as a 58th-minute substitute.

"If someone who plays for only a few minutes doesn't give their all and avoids tussles and runs less than a player who's on for the full 90 minutes, I don't consider that player to be a real footballer," he said.

Kim later said his comment was "somewhat exaggerated" and that he had told Lingard he was "a special player and should take on a leadership role in the squad".

Seoul are mid-table with one win, one defeat and two draws.

- 'Much bigger than Lingard' -

Lingard played down reports of a rift with the coach, saying the incident had been "blown out of proportion".

"I always work hard, I check my stats after the game and my stats were fairly high for the minutes that I played," he said.

"It's just his choice of words, and obviously the media are going to twist it more than what it is."

Lingard's move to Seoul surprised observers in both England and South Korea.

He explained that he had "multiple offers" but they were "all verbal" and he chose Seoul because they were committed to signing him.

Lingard came through the youth system at Manchester United and scored the winner in the 2016 FA Cup final, but struggled to consistently hold down a regular place at Old Trafford.

He starred during a loan spell at West Ham in the second half of the 2020/21 season, only to find himself on the fringes again when he returned to Manchester.

Lingard played only 20 times in all competitions for Forest and featured just four times in 2023.

He revealed last year that he used alcohol to "try to take the pain away" as he battled mental demons caused by his stalling United career and his mother's bouts of depression.

The writer Hong believes Lingard's early struggles at Seoul are because of his poor fitness and pointed out that adapting to a new league is never easy.

But he called Kim one of the best managers in South Korea and warned that the coach is "much bigger than Lingard, at least in the K League".

"Anything can happen," he said.

"But to be honest, I don't think both of them work together until the end."

amk/pst