The acquisition had long been flagged, even if the timing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s re-signing took many by surprise. Still months away from full fitness and courted by clubs in Europe and the United States, the Swede will return to the Manchester United squad as a back-up and not the main man. That much is reflected in Ibrahimovic’s new wage, which is less than half the amount that he earned last season. Yet, while the striker will not face Leicester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, his presence is already felt.
Ibrahimovic’s strong progress towards full fitness should mean that the 35-year-old is ready to play a part from January onwards. For the time being, Mourinho benefits from an attacking outfit that has scored eight goals in the opening two games of the Premier League campaign.
It is not for today that Mourinho pushed to retain Ibrahimovic though. With United back in the Champions League group stages, Mourinho expects that the Reds schedule will again be heavy come the New Year.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]It is not for today that Mourinho pushed to retain Ibrahimovic. With United back in the Champions League, Mourinho expects the Reds schedule to be heavy.[/blockquote]
“Zlatan is going to arrive mid-season and we are going to be a better squad,” said Mourinho. “If we progress in the Champions League and one of the two cups we are going to be in the position where we couldn’t do it only with Lukaku and Rashford, especially if I play both together.
“If I want to give a rest to my two strikers, who do I play? I have to play Rashford or Lukaku. So we need a striker and we have one just around the corner that belongs to our family. He’s one more option, he’s one more striker, he’s one more experienced player.”
If Mourinho cannot wait for Ibrahimovic to return, the United manager offered another warning to Anthony Martial, a player whom he still does not fully trust. Apparently not considered an option as a striker should Marcus Rashford or Romelu Lukaku need a rest, Martial has just three substitutes appearance on the left to show for the campaign to date.
The Frenchman enjoyed a positive pre-season and came off the bench to score in games against West Ham United and Swansea City. Mourinho wants more though – a player whom he can trust to perform in both attacking and defensive phases. The warning: should Martial continue to displease his manager the youngster will continue to play a peripheral role in Mourinho’s thinking.
“When you are blessed with talent, you have to fulfil and explore it,” added the manager. “You cannot be happy with just glimpses. That I am not going to change. I want more and more and more. He has all the qualities for that. He understands me better too.
“Our personal relationship is good. I don’t think player-manager relationship is fundamental but it is an added good thing to have a good relation. I hope he will be better this season than last.”
Martial is likely to find himself on the bench once again this weekend as 2016 Champions Leicester visit Old Trafford, with Rashford, Lukaku, Juan Mata and Henryk Myktaryan forming an effective attacking quartet to date. Indeed, Mourinho may well be reluctant to change a winning formula, at least until the Champions League kicks in at the beginning of September.
After all, United lies top of the Premier League even if the season is just two games old. After the lost years under the disastrous David Moyes and Louis van Gaal regimes, there is momentum again. Ibrahimovic and Martial will likely both play significant parts in what promises to be a busy few months ahead.
“There are seven matches to play in September in three different competitions, sometimes just two days between matches, so we need our squad. We need everyone,” noted Mourinho.
The Foxes have enjoyed a mixed start to the new campaign. Craig Shakespeare’s team lost to Arsenal in entertaining fashion on the opening day of the new season, before defeating Brighton & Hove Albion at the King Power Stadium, and securing a comfortable EFL Cup victory over Sheffield United.
The team has recovered from a disastrous defence of the title last season – a campaign so calamitous that manager Claudio Ranieri was controversially sacked just six months after lifting the Premier League trophy.
Shakespeare appears to have reinvigorated a squad whose motivation hit rock bottom after the highs of the 2016 title win. The Englishman has also restored Ranieri’s tried-and-trusted direct style for what should be a more comfortable campaign after last season’s flirtation with relegation.
There will be no title bid in the months ahead, says Mourinho, but Leicester is unlikely to be a gimme for Saturday’s tea-time kick off.
“It is the same team as they were two seasons ago,” added Mourinho. “After what they did, we could feel that they would not be champions a second consecutive season. Are they going to be champions again? Honestly, I don’t think so. All the other teams are not all going to fail.”
Mourinho enjoys a fully fit squad aside from long-term absentees Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw and Ashley Young. The winger is back in full-training, while Shaw played almost an hour of an under-23 fixture last week.
Meanwhile, Rojo is on track to play again before the New Year, having made a strong recovery from a knee ligament injury. “When I see him run,” added Mourinho, “I like it. It doesn’t look like somebody with an injury. There is no limping, there are no details of injury, but that is just body language, that is just straight running. Football is different.”
Elsewhere, Mourinho is unlikely to make changes to Leicester’s visit after the Reds strong start to the new campaign. The Portuguese manager enjoys a settled, if somewhat unlikely back four, with Phil Jones and Eric Bailly forming a strong partnership in central defence, and Daley Blind edging ahead of Matteo Darmian at left-back.
In midfield, Mourinho dropped last season’s Player of the Year Ander Herrera for the opening games of the campaign, preferring new acquisition Nemanja Matic in a defensive role. The bolder change is in deploying just one holding midfielder, an approach Mourinho was often reluctant to take last season.
Up front, the trio of Rasford, Lukaku and Myktaryan will be trusted to secure United three wins on the bounce and genuine momentum for a title bid.
Leicester arrives at Old Trafford struggling to field a full-strength back four. Defender Robert Huth is definitely out, while Wes Morgan and Harry Macguire could also miss the game. At least one, if not both, may have to be risked. Former Manchester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho has a toe problem and will not feature. Jamie Vardy, Danny Drinkwater and Nampalys Mendy have returned to full training.
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistants: S Bennett, C Hatzidakis
Fourth official: C Pawson
United 2-1 Leicester