When Manchester United host Everton on Tuesday night, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be available for selection for the first time since being retrospectively banned by the FA for elbowing Bournemouth’s Tyrone Mings. Most have forgiven the provoked Swede if not entirely forgotten.
Having failed to score against Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion during his three-game absence, it’s more than likely that Ibrahimovic will instantaneously reclaim his place as the spearhead of the Red Devils’ attack, especially after hinting he could prolong his stay at Old Trafford for another season last week and especially after Jose Mourinho saw fit to criticise Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial’s lack of killer instinct following Saturday’s scoreless draw with West Brom.
“What I can say is we tried. We had six players absolutely phenomenal in their attitude, mentality and consistency. Valencia, Bailly, Rojo, Young, Carrick and Fellaini. And then we have four creative players that we need to score a goal and they didn’t. They had flashes, moments, they didn’t have consistency and we dropped two points for that.”
A goalscoring saviour returning to the fore at just the right time then, just as Manchester United’s underwhelming record at Old Trafford this season – ranking tenth in the Premier League’s home table with just 26 points and only 20 goals – is the beginning to garner the wrong kind of attention. But the towering battering ram of Swedish flair may well be the wrong weapon to call upon when the Toffees come to town; just as he may be the wrong front-man to take Mourinho’s United from the gloom of the post-Ferguson era back to the glories of yesteryear.
On the surface, that may seem absurd. Ibrahimovic is United’s top scorer in the Premier League by a nine-goal margin, the division’s fifth-top scorer with 15 goals and in the eyes of many, the only truly world-class player on the books at Old Trafford, Paul Pogba pending. It’s hard to imagine where the Red Devils would be without the former PSG man this season; he’s scored 36% of United’s league goals and excepting Juan Mata has been the only player to consistently provide the cutting edge required to separate Red Devils wins from the joint-highest draw haul in the Premier League, a staggering eleven.
Yet, Steve McClaren once described a key part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s job as having a ‘helicopter view’ of the club. He knew which key players he’d mercilessly cull several seasons ahead of their eventual departures, so one wonders how he’d interpret Ibrahimovic’s situation, with one year remaining on his current contract but talks over an extension reportedly ongoing. Ibrahimovic may be one of the best strikers in the world, but he’s inevitably regressing at 35 and even the very best come with limitations when they reach that age.
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Ibrahimovic forces United to play in a certain kind of way, one that makes him the star of the show but hasn’t exactly made Mourinho’s first season at Old Trafford one of resounding success, especially in the Premier League. They rank first throughout the Premier League for crosses per match this season, have won the most aerial duels of any side in the top six and average more long balls per match than Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea.
Yet that approach hasn’t reaped the rewards you’d necessarily expect, considering Zlatan’s quality and 6 foot 5 frame. United have only scored nine headers this season – four courtesy of the one-time Juventus man – and have found the net from just seven set pieces. Likewise, and perhaps most tellingly, they’ve scored the fewest goals – 42 – of any side in the Premier League’s top seven, whilst scoring more than twice on just twelve of 28 occasions.
Of course, that can’t all be attributed simply to Ibrahimovic – the stats suggest United are a more potent attacking threat in the Premier League when he’s in the starting XI and the Red Devils’ win rate across all competitions this season drops by four per cent – 62% to 58% – when the former PSG star isn’t involved. But he slows down play, he requires balls played to his feet or head and he requires midfielders to constantly run beyond him. That’s not always easy in big games against quality opposition, which perhaps explains why Mourinho’s usually exemplary record against divisional rivals has reduced to just six points taken from the top six this term.
Everton represent the Premier League’s best of the rest and in theory, opposition United should be able to pick off at home – especially considering their recent injury problems – but Zlatan doesn’t feel like the right player for the occasion.
Whilst Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams feel more comfortable against that kind of striker, who will look to get as close to them as possible and wrestle for positioning, it was the scintillating speed of Liverpool’s attack that caught the Toffees out on Saturday. Jagielka and Williams simply couldn’t cope with Sadio Mane running at them inwards from the right-hand side; Marcus Rashford, albeit from the opposite flank, has the potential to do the same, whereas natural pace and power could make Anthony Martial a real menace as well.
Overall, that appears to be the direction most attacks are moving towards in the Premier League. Speed and flexibility over power and functionality; counter-attacking threat over holding up the ball to trigger midfield runs; short, snapping passing into space, rather than direct passes into the final third. The age of the old-fashioned centre-forward is by no means dead, but certainly seems to lack the popularity of 4-5-1’s heyday.
Of course, Zlatan is more than simply an old-fashioned centre-forward, and we are talking about just one game. But the notion Ibrahimovic isn’t the best man for the job to beat a side who probably won’t qualify for Europe this season does corrode at the idea of him being truly world-class. Likewise, there’s arguably more venom to United’s attack – and it’s arguably more in line with United’s traditional philosophy – when they’re relying on the speed of Martial, Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard than the strength and guile of Ibrahimovic.
But more important than Wednesday’s clash is where depending on Ibrahimovic for another season could leave United. Improvements could be made elsewhere – Antoine Griezmann in the forward line would add a whole new dimension – but based on current evidence, Ibrahimovic alone isn’t enough to make United a genuine threat in next season’s title race. Another striker just might be.
Likewise, strikers will be hot property once again this summer and keeping Ibrahimovic for another year will inevitably reduce United’s options. It’s hard to imagine him willingly sharing game-time with a younger striker of similar quality such as Romelu Lukaku, just as it’s hard to imagine a target of that calibre moving to Old Trafford under the same premise. Strikers are greedy by nature and Mourinho will struggle to keep another one happy, especially with Rashford and Martial already knocking down his door.
Zlatan’s a phenomenal striker, but is one more season really worth missing out on five or six with another?