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Ibrahimovic injury hands keys to young attackers to steer Manchester United clear

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.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Manchester United – Liverpool

Something has to give in this weekend’s big clash between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford. The former is one of the in-form Premier League teams with nine consecutive wins, whereas Liverpool is coming off a draw at Sunderland and a Capital One Cup semi-final first leg defeat at Southampton.

United have improved since the two teams drew 0-0 at Anfield this season, but it’s difficult to believe Mourinho will stray away from his successful approach that night. Mourinho’s “big game mantra” is built around defensive organization and efficient finishing when chances arise, and though successfully attacking the Reds would be ground-breaking, the Portuguese manager can’t afford to drop three points.

At Anfield, United were fairly direct with their play by avoiding passes from the back, which prevented Liverpool from gegenpressing and winning the ball in advanced positions. Ironically, United’s high pressing stifled Liverpool’s buildup play in the opening half and were combative in midfield throughout.

There shouldn’t be many changes, here, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s fitness issues means the Swede may not lead the line ahead of Paul Pogba. Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial are the likely replacements upfront, offering genuine pace behind the Liverpool aggressive high-line.

Marouane Fellaini performed well at Anfield, and though Mourinho would typically opt for the Belgian’s physicality in central areas, Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera have developed a great partnership at the base of midfield. However, Mourinho may be concerned about Carrick coping with Liverpool’s intense pressing.

Carrick is accustomed to having ample time on the ball to dictate the game’s tempo, but Klopp will likely instruct his players to apply the pressure once the 35-year-old gains possession. This may lead to Herrera dropping deeper as well to alleviate pressure off Carrick, or witness the Spaniard attempt to help United build from deep despite potential pressure from the visitors.

The other decision Mourinho must make involves his wide personnel. Ashley Young performed well in a defensive winger role at Anfield and could merit another start, but it appears Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Martial will drift centrally from the flanks. The other possible option behind the striker is Jesse Lingard, who is often utilized in bigger games due to his discipline and ability to carry out instructions.

They can all fulfill defensive duties diligently, but equally pose a transitional threat when United regain possession. Juan Mata will likely be excluded because he lacks the aforementioned traits, but is a reliable impact sub off the bench if United require guile in the final third. Martial and Rashford possesses similar traits, and if Ibrahimovic starts upfront, one of the youngsters could start from the left, while the other is utilized as an impact sub.

Marcos Rojo’s fitness issues puts the Argentine’s place in the XI in jeopardy, meaning Chris Smalling and Phil Jones should start at centre-back. Meanwhile, Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia should retain their spots as full-backs, despite the former possibly encountering issues against the attack-minded Nathaniel Clyne.

Liverpool, however, aren’t blessed with United’s depth, and Klopp shouldn’t have many big decisions to make. Sadio Mane’s absence due to African Cup of Nation’s duty deprives Liverpool of pace upfront, but the return of Philippe Coutinho balances out Klopp’s fortunes.

Divock Origi could return to the XI to replace Daniel Sturridge following an ineffective performance at Southampton. Nonetheless, Klopp may be better off without a natural centre-forward with Roberto Firmino upfront, whilst the returning Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana operating from the flanks.

That would mean Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum would start ahead of Jordan Henderson if deemed match-fit. But if Henderson is unavailable, Klopp will likely start Origi, and opt for Wijnaldum and Lallana ahead of Can. Joel Matip is set to return and could re-form his partnership with Dejan Lovren at centre-back, whereas Simon Mignolet is expected to start in goal.

With so many physical midfielders and both managers keen on heavy pressing, this could be another scrappy encounter with few chances. Liverpool’s approach is intriguing, nonetheless, especially if Mourinho attempts to replicate the defensive template set at Anfield.

Klopp’s Liverpool, however, have displayed their ability to remain compact and defend deep for lengthy spells, and they may be equally patient, and aim to combine quick passes to break on the counter. Still, it will be interesting to see how United cope with Liverpool’s interchanging movement and Lallana’s late charges into the box – especially if Carrick starts at the base of United’s midfield.

United are slight favourites based on overall form between the two clubs, depth, and numerous game-changers off the bench. Both sides attempt to play quite narrow with the wide players drifting in-field, but Liverpool’s movement, cohesion and understanding of constant positional interchanging suggests United’s back-line should endure a few problems.

The first goal should open things up and determine the tempo of the match, but that depends on whether Liverpool can unlock United’s sturdy defence, and whether the hosts will push men forward to create ample chances. Despite several goal-scorers throughout both XI’s, this could be another tactical battle built around defensive organization and discipline.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2017 in EPL, Published Work

 

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