As Zlatan Ibrahimovic accepts his three match ban for an altercation with Tyrone Mings in Manchester United’s 1-1 draw with Bournemouth at Old Trafford last Saturday afternoon, it seems like terrible news for United.
Over the past few months, Jose Mourinho’s side have been picking up the pace somewhat in the Premier League, along with victory in the EFL Cup and impressive progression in the FA Cup and Europa League. But one very big part of that upsurge in form has been the 35-year-old Ibrahimovic.
26 – Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored 26 goals in all competitions this season; 17 more than any other Man Utd player. Miss.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 7, 2017
His goals for United this season have seen him sit comfortably as their top scorer, but it’s not just the sheer volume of goals that’s been impressive. Without him, United would be much worse off. If their poor start to the season has mostly been forgotten after their good run of form since the end of October, they do still sit sixth in the league, and Zlatan’s goals are one of the reasons they are even within touching distance of the top four.
If United didn’t score the goals Ibrahimovic has provided so far this season, they’d currently find themselves below Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion, and with about just as much chance of qualifying for the Champions League next season. Although surely some of those goals relied on good passes from teammates or other good team play, meaning that any striker in his position would have scored at least some of them.
But United are losing even more than just a goalscorer. The legendary Swede is perhaps the only member of the squad who you might describe as a ‘winner’. It’s a term that has found its way more and more into the footballing lexicon – in the wake of Arsenal’s apparent February collapse, and Arsene Wenger’s decision to drop Alexis Sanchez for a key game against Liverpool, we’ve heard a lot about born winners, and how Arsenal have precisely one of them. One who was recently relegated to the bench in a big game. Without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, perhaps United are a similarly leaderless side whose next three games will find them out.
Yet that’s not totally true.
Firstly, with the exception of the Chelsea clash in the FA Cup, Ibrahimovic is missing two relatively routine fixtures away to Middlesbrough and at home to West Brom. They are two games United would be expected to win even without their top goalscorer. (Though it must be said that United’s last game against West Brom was a victory in which Ibrahimovic both goals, and their last meeting with Middlesbrough ended in victory only after a late comeback in which the Swede provided an assist for the equaliser before Paul Pogba netted the winner.)
And secondly, according to The Sun, Ibrahimovic has missed more clear cut chances than any other player in the league this season, failing to convert 17 attempts that The Sun have deemed ‘key chances’, almost double the tally of Bournemouth’s Benik Afobe who comes second on that list with nine ‘key chances’ missed.
So maybe United won’t miss Zlatan at all. Maybe they’ll find another way of playing that means they’ll actually see more of the chances they create find the back of the net rather than the fans in the stands. And maybe they’ll prove that – as good as Ibrahimovic has been – he’s been scoring so many goals because his teammates have been laying them on for him, not because he’s head and shoulders above everyone else.
Or perhaps the fact that Zlatan is on the end of those chances in the first place speaks volumes about his ability to find space or his movement in dangerous areas. Perhaps the fact that he’s such a leader on the pitch means that his teammates instinctively look for him instead of other players. And perhaps losing him for three games means losing not just a cutting edge and a leader, but the entire cornerstone upon which their good form has been built.
The stats show that United may not miss Ibrahimovic if they can find someone to convert the chances he contrives to spurn on such a regular basis. The problem is, his replacement will have to get into the same deadly positions. It’s hard to replace a man who can afford to miss so many clear cut chances and yet still boast 26 goals. And without him, United could well be back to the same striking problems they had last season under Louis van Gaal.