The sudden knee injury Zlatan Ibrahimovic suffered in Manchester United’s Europa League triumph over Anderlecht ruled the striker unavailable for the remainder of the season, yet the Swede’s absence is being perceived in various ways.
Although Ibrahimovic has been the star performer for United in his inaugural Premier League campaign, the Swede’s greatness hasn’t been accepted by some United fans. The conflict between individual brilliance outweighing a stagnant attacking scheme is one of the perplexing issues associated with Ibrahimovic’s impressive goal-scoring resume, but also created an intriguing predicament at Old Trafford.
In many ways, United are at a cross-road: a mixture of promising young talent, and over-the-hill Premier League veterans that would be deemed nothing more than squad players at other contenders have arguably underachieved this season. Where many tipped Jose Mourinho’s men to challenge for the Premier League title ahead of the current season, United’s trip to the Etihad has huge implications regarding the remaining Champions League spots opposed to the title race.
A combination of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reluctance to lay foundations for a potential dynasty – which therefore created a short-minded mentality to solely win in the moment – ignited United’s current downfall. While, an amalgamation of David Moyes inability to direct the club in the right direction along with Louis van Gaal’s attempt to fill his XI with promising youngsters ultimately presented a difficult task for Mourinho.
The Portuguese manager, often renowned for a man who constructs his teams to build on the mantra Ferguson had instilled in his final years – hence why Mourinho was probably the best-suited option as Ferguson’s initial successor – is also harshly labeled as a manager afraid to utilize the youth at his disposal. Therefore, the reality of building a squad to Mourinho’s preference has been an arduous process that has put both the club and manager under scrutiny.
Luckily for Mourinho, of the four main signings made this summer, Ibrahimovic – whom he spent time with at Inter Milan – exceeded expectation and proved to be one of the elite Premier League performers this season. Truthfully speaking, it may be more extraordinary that Ibrahimovic’s talent was questioned prior to his Old Trafford arrival, given the Swede’s goal-scoring record throughout his career. At 35, Ibrahimovic’s remarkable form transcended to England, whilst playing a major role in United’s quest to regain Champions League football.
Stylistically, United comfortably dominate possession, but lack the guile and invention in the final third to break down inferior opposition that prefer to sit deep and limit space between the lines. Possession is often slowly circulated from side to side, with very few penetrative passes, or runners aiming to break beyond the opposing defence.
Dependence on Ibrahimovic isn’t necessarily a negative factor considering the youthful Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are too inexperienced to solely lodge a proper title challenge. Meanwhile, Ibrahimovic’s form provided Mourinho a logical reason to exclude a declining Wayne Rooney from the United XI.
Frankly, the Swede’s presence was required in a United side lacking a genuine world class star capable of providing match-winning moments. Old Trafford was an environment where Ibrahimovic could maximize his talents and establish himself as the focal point of a bland attacking scheme developed under Mourinho’s predecessors.
It’s no coincidence that Ibrahimovic’s less remembered spell at Barcelona and Juventus witnessed several stars surrounding the 35-year-old in cohesive systems. The peculiar feat involving Ibrahimovic is that the Swede thrives in disjointed systems built around his strengths, and despite all the talent the 35-year-old possesses, it appears he’s at his best when his club sacrifices their structure at his expense.
This is also one of many factors as to why dependence on the Swede was expedient. Despite a slow start to life in England, Ibrahimovic’s 17 league goals is amongst the division’s best, and pivotal to a United side still aiming to find an identity. In that sense, Ibrahimovic’s instant impact has proved beneficial at Old Trafford, and provided Mourinho time to implement his philosophy.
Wayne Rooney’s progressive decline and injury issues prevent the United captain from serving as a competent spearhead to the attack. Anthony Martial’s reported discontent with playing from the left flank opposed to a main central role is evident, but the Frenchman’s dribbling and ability to charge behind the opposition defence remains crucial to a United side guilty of lacking penetration in the final third.
Marcus Rashford’s rapid rise to prominence last season has also left many perplexed at his limited amount of game-time, and his performances at Middlesbrough and against Chelsea in recent weeks highlighted the rare moments of speed and verticality displayed in United’s game.
However, United’s home draw against an organized West Brom outfit displayed the limitations Mourinho’s men have encountered without Ibrahimovic this season. A visit to Sunderland presented a similar challenge, but at the half hour mark Ibrahimovic received the ball with his back to goal, gained a yard on two markers and curled a super low effort past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. It came at a period where United were devoid of creativity, yet Ibrahimovic’s moment of brilliance completely shifted the pattern of the match – a gift no player in United’s current squad possesses.
On paper, the trio of Martial, Ibrahimovic, and Rashford should’ve never presented an issue given Ibrahimovic’s tenure at PSG, where the Swede played with speedy wide attackers in the mould of the aforementioned youngsters. Ibrahimovic’s all-round game enables the Swede to operate in two distinct roles, and in truth, it was intriguing to witness the 35-year-old’s Ligue 1 tenure.
Domestically, Ibrahimovic operated as a traditional centre-forward, similar to his current role at United, poaching goals around the box. The Swede claimed the golden boot in three of his four seasons in the French capital, tallying a remarkable 38 goals last season.
However, Ibrahimovic’s play was entirely different in Europe to ensure PSG dominated the midfield zone, whilst decreasing the likelihood of the 35-year-old being isolated upfront. Dropping deeper into midfield to hold up possession and operate as a no.10 to encourage Angel Di Maria and Lucas Moura to charge behind the opposition’s defence from wide areas.
At United, Ibrahimovic is currently operating as the former, and though the latter would probably serve more beneficial for the Red Devils – given the pace Mourinho possesses in attack – the Swede’s form in the final third became priority. Historically, though, United have usually enjoyed success built around a well-rounded unit opposed to solely relying on a reliable target-man, and Ibrahimovic’s presence at the club serves as another fine example.
Apart from Robin van Persie’s remarkable 2012/2013 campaign in an albeit truly imbalanced side, over the past decade when Rooney or Ruud van Nistelrooy enjoyed breakout years, United finished no higher than runner-ups. Therefore, it remains a mystery as to why Mourinho never insisted on shuffling his attacking options throughout the season.
Rashford’s willingness to work the channels and run beyond the defence were crucial against Chelsea and Middlesbrough, while he also picks up the ball in midfield zones before dribbling towards the box. And where the United youngster isn’t renowned for his creativity, he tends to drift away from the penalty box to play quick intricate passes with teammates to create goal-scoring chances.
Martial, on the other hand, scored the game winning goal at Burnley last weekend as he ignited a swift break from United’s half and subsequently finished the move 10 seconds later. It was a trademark counter-attacking move from a Mourinho side that may not have occurred had Ibrahimovic spearheaded the attack.
Ibrahimovic’s goal-scoring form was decisive, which therefore resulted in heavy reliance on the Swede this season, but it’s been refreshing to witness variety in United’s attack. However, while Martial and Rashford can eventually develop into top-class strikers, the likelihood that both men could guide United to a proper title challenge is unrealistic.
In a league where many promising starlets eventually burn out due to excessive amount of games, Mourinho’s decision to properly manage their minutes is fairly logical. Meanwhile, young strikers develop reliable finishing skills in their mid twenties, and neither Rashford, nor Martial have displayed signs of bucking the trend which partially justifies Mourinho’s reluctance to persist with Ibrahimovic earlier this year.
Still, Mourinho can be held accountable for not utilizing the variety of attacking options to his advantage when required, but another standout performance in the Manchester Derby for Rashford or Martial – more so the former given his performance against Chelsea – would make it difficult for the United manager to ignore.
Ibrahimovic was the main man at Old Trafford, but there are other options capable of making United more flexible and less functional from an attacking perspective. Finding that balance is the next task Mourinho must overcome, but at the moment, trusting his young attacking core presents a colossal test that will define the remainder of United’s season and potentially the club’s transfer activity over the summer.