Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s status in world football hardly needed improving. The Swede’s iconic position has not necessarily changed with his time at Manchester United, despite a period of brilliance at Old Trafford.
As Jose Mourinho’s good friend and favoured centre forward, the former Barcelona man has scored a hefty percentage of their Premier League goals and been an undoubtedly rejuvenating presence in a faltering Manchester United team.
Few players transcend the sport quite like Ibrahimovic. His demeanour reflects his unerring self-belief that frequently borders on brutal arrogance, while his on-pitch dramatics have seen him collect medals across Europe’s top leagues with an almost unrivalled ruthlessness. He will go down in the history of the sport as one of the all-time greats.
At United, however, he has occasionally limited them. Forcing the starlet Marcus Rashford to play on the flank and leaving the team without any pace to run behind the opposition’s centre-backs, Mourinho has been forced to build his side around Ibrahimovic. His goal scoring returns in raw numbers look good – great for a player of his age – but they are not truly representative of his season.
Ultimately, chances have been missed all too frequently. In Manchester United’s almost typical home draws against weaker opposition, it has often been Ibrahimovic that has blown the biggest chance to break a deadlock. For all the positivity about his impact on the club and the league, Ibrahimovic has – only to the perception of some – been a detriment to Manchester United.
This is not to undermine his quality, far from it. This is a response to how United’s season has gone and where Ibrahimovic’s standards have really been. He has not cured all for the club, he has, rather, created his own issues in the team.
Now, with United set to face Chelsea in a Sunday showdown, the prospect of Ibrahimovic not starting the match would be baffling. It would be seen as mind games from Mourinho rather than a tactical manoeuvre.
There could be some mileage in it, though. With Rashford and Anthony Martial offering a different angle of attack, Mourinho could opt to field his golden boys and spring a tactical surprise on a Chelsea defence that has not kept a league clean sheet since January.
The trouble with this, however, is that Chelsea’s Achilles Heel has been their ability to defend balls to the right-side of their defence. Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta have been exposed to back post crosses on multiple occasions. Peter Crouch and Dele Alli both had great joy aerially against Chelsea and this has to be where United attack.
So, if there is to be a tactical surprise, it should be based around Ibrahimovic, not at his expense. Marouane Fellaini may be the villain of Old Trafford, but a partnership with Ibrahimovic could reap real rewards.