Zlat ban will frustrate player and manager, yet both could benefit
Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss three Manchester United games after taking pointed retribution against Tyrone Mings at the weekend. The Swede’s swinging elbow was missed by referee Kevin Friend, but an FA panel found inevitable guilt in the 35-year-old’s violence. Yet, while the striker’s 26 goals in all competitions have been vital to United’s cause this season, there may be greater benefit from an enforced leave of absence.
Away from Ibrahimovic’s elbow, the Swede suffered a hugely indifferent game against Bournemouth, finding the target with just one of his seven shots – the penalty saved by Artur Boric – while Ibrahimovic’s normally tidy build up game seem laboured and his contribution minimal in what turned out to be a deeply frustrating day both for United’s leading marksman and his team.
"The FA found inevitable guilt in the 35-year-old’s violence. Yet, while the striker’s 26 goals in all competitions have been vital to United’s cause, there may be greater benefit from an enforced leave of absence."
The draw was the Reds’ seventh at Old Trafford in the Premier League this season, five of which have come against opposition lower in the table. That’s 14 points dropped in a campaign where every place from second to seventh is up for grabs. In those draws – against Stoke City, Burnley, Arsenal, West Ham United, Liverpool, Hull City and Bournemouth – the Reds have taken 136 shots, with just 49 on target, scoring five goals. It is coming to the point that United’s slackness in games against the Premier League’s lesser lights is not only unforgivable, especially from a team whose Champions League fate is now in others’ hands, but likely to be very costly. Mourinho knows it, but as yet has found no resolution to the pattern.
“If you look at the points we have lost at home, if you accumulate these points, you are talking about 10 or 12,” admitted Mourinho. “With these points you are not talking about the top four, you are talking about top two or first. We are not dead. There are matches to play, points to fight for, but the reality is that we are losing too many points at home.”
Perhaps the frustration contributed to the Swede’s 44th-minute elbow, which caught Mings on the left side of the defender’s head. It came just seconds after the Bournemouth player had trod on his opponent, seemingly checking Ibrahimovic’s position before digging in the left boot. It wasn’t even Ibrahimovic’s first offence of the afternoon – earlier in the match the striker had wrestled Mings to the ground with the ball some distance away. Both now face three domestic matches on the sidelines.
The moment encapsulated a low-quality game in which four players should have seen red, instead of just the Cherries’ Andrew Surman. The referee dismissed Surman for a second yellow after the midfielder had pushed Ibrahimovic down in the confrontation that followed Mings’ stamp and Zlatan’s elbow. To add to the sense of chaos, Friend seemingly didn’t realise that Surman had already been cautioned, and acted only after word came from his assistant Darren Cann. Later in the game Harry Arter escaped a second yellow, despite a crude lunge on Paul Pogba.
Neither Mings or Ibrahimovic admitted complicity in the aftermath, with the Swede pushing Sean Spicer-levels of brass balls with his assertion that the Bournemouth player had “jumped into my elbow.” Similarly, Mings claimed that his stamp “wasn’t intentional.” Few ex-pros, referees or pundits believe either excuse.
“I respect every decision,” added Ibrahimovic. “I am not here to attack anybody. I am not a player who will stand here and blame a player. What happens on the field stays on the field. But I can talk about my situation, I jumped straight up, he jumps in for me, I jump very high and protect myself at the same time as I always do and go for the ball. He jumps into me and jumps into my elbow. It had nothing to do with the situation before because I didn’t even know who had stepped on me. It is the game, the game is hard.”
Mourinho had little time for the drama playing out in the TV studios either, but it is likely that the FA will pay little attention to Zlatan’s story, meaning that United’s top goalscorer will miss the FA Cup sixth round tie with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge next Monday, and then two Premier League games against Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion. He will be available for United’s double-header against FC Rostov in the Europa League.
“Zlatan is a big man like I am,” said the Portuguese in his post match press conference. “Too many years in football. We are not the kind of generation that goes to the media and cries about what happened. We are from the generation of street football, and football for big guys. What happened happened. Game over. What counts is the result, and nothing else matters.”
Results will be harder to come by without the now talismanic Swede, especially at Stamford Bridge where Mourinho’s team took a severe beating earlier this season. Still, having already featured in 39 games, Ibrahimovic has played more ofter for United than anybody else. He has more minutes on the clock in the league than all bar David de Gea and Paul Pogba. Impressive for a veteran in the twilight of his career; counter-productive if United’s season continues to play out in three competitions.
The player rejects any assertion that he is fatigued after a brutal month of league and cup football across four tournaments. His performance on Saturday suggested otherwise. Indeed, Ibrahimovic has a career-long penchant for playing as much football as he can, rarely suffering injury, almost never taking an unenforced break. Mourinho is seemingly equally reluctant to rest his star striker – and it is understandable given the player’s contribution this season.
“When you don’t win a game you try to find a lot of excuses,” said Ibrahimovic. “If we had won easily today nobody would even have asked if we had played a lot of games or are you tired, you are not playing well whatever. We didn’t play well in the final and when you win it covers up things and the questions you want to ask. We have played a lot of games but I love to play football, it is my passion and every game I enjoy. It is a lot of games. But I don’t think this is an excuse. I have been doing this for 15 years and play 50-70 games a year.”
Ibrahimovic will certainly face Rostov in Russia on Thursday and then the return at Old Trafford a week later, but whether he wants it or not, the player will enjoy game-free weekends until United’s home fixture with Everton on 4 April. Neither striker nor his manager will enjoy the absence, but Ibrahimovic’s ageing limbs may well love it.
Time without Ibrahimovic will also give Mourinho pause for thought. After all, the pattern of United’s performances in home draws this season is now well set – Mourinho’s team rarely comes up with an alternate attacking plan, save for the one that involves launching it at Marouane Fellaini. Without Ibra, Mourinho will be forced to change track, perhaps deploying Marcus Rashford in his favoured central striking role, or restoring Antony Martial to the position in which he was so effective last season. It could be that a front three of Rashford, Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will offer the kind of dynamic pace that Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney could not at the weekend. It would be a gamble, but in United’s predicament that is probably exactly what Mourinho needs.
Ibrahimovic will return after suspension. Frustrated perhaps, but fresher for the time off. And that may well be better for the Reds as the season draws to a close.