So, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has re-signed for United and is back to finish what he started! I can’t wait for him to return, umm by the way when is that?
Well, if reports are to be believed he’s looking to play against Tottenham Hotspur when the Londoners visit Old Trafford on 28 October. To put that into context he suffered serious ligament damage in his right knee against Anderlecht in April and usually the recovery time is nine months to a year. United’s new number 10 could be playing football six months after sustaining a potential career ending injury.
Well, he is a lion after all or something like that. So that means that José Mourinho has a pool of attacking talent consisting of: Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Henryk Mkhitaryan, Antony Martial, Juan Mata and of course a returning Ibra. Pretty formidable n’est pas?
Well, those players give José a lot of options and will allow him to play in a number of different styles.
So who will Zlatan start with?
"He’s looking to play against Tottenham when the Londoners visit on 28 October. The recovery time is nine months. United’s new number 10 could be playing within six."
There’s no guarantee that he’ll be an automatic first choice! Remember, Zlatan returns at the end of October, in that time United will have already played 10 games and given how the frontline looks to be clicking there’s no guarantee he’ll slot straight back in.
There’s no point shoe-horning him for the sake of it. José is well aware of this and has cautioned that the Swede isn’t guaranteed a first team spot.
“Zlatan knows me,” said Mou. “And he knows that I play the players that I think are best for the team. I always did it. I always did that in my life so if he comes here and proves that he is the best, he plays. If the other ones don’t give him a chance to prove that, that’s life.”
Zlatan has the extra challenge of forcing himself into a team that will be relatively settled by the time the player fully recovers. José is no doubt happy to have Zlatan on board, but he’s not exactly rolling out the red carpet straight into the first team.
Maybe José could drop Rashford or Martial and play Ibra in the 10 role?
That’s a possibility, but then you’ll have a front four of Zlatan, Lukaku, Mkhitaryan and Mata. It’s a very strong attacking unit, but Rashford’s sheer pace will be lost and one of the hallmarks of this United team in the early part of the season is the speed at which it attacks. Rashford is a key component – as demonstrated by his destruction of Pablo Zabaleta.
Similarly, Martial’s pace and trickery has been a feature of early games and he’s already helped himself to a couple of goals and assists already. The Frenchman is responding to his manager’s challenge with some encouraging displays.
Given how effective they’ve been it doesn’t make sense to jettison the pair, especially as they’ve been making decisive contributions.
Okay, how about Mata? José subs him practically every game and he’s not a speed merchant. Could he make way?
Well, yes but on the flip side, Mata is one of United’s more natural schemers, removing the Spaniard would mean losing his guile and creativity. In addition, José’s 4-2-3-1 system allows both Mkhitaryan and Mata to play together – and whenever they combine good things generally happen. The current front four is a good blend of speed and smarts so it’s difficult to argue for the quartet to be broken up. That’s not to mention the threat of Martial and Paul Pogba, with the latter enjoying license to play further up the pitch thanks to Nemanja Matić’s introduction.
Humour me, so what would Zlatan bring then if played in a 4-2-3-1?
Goals. Last season he scored 28 goals in all competitions. A pretty good return all told. Of United’s front four the only truly consistent goal-scorer is Lukaku. Bringing back Ibra would, in theory, help increase United’s goal tally. The Swede brings a focal point on the pitch and could well have space to exploit in the number 10 position if Lukaku, Rashford and Mkhitaryan stretch the game with their speed and movement off the ball.
Yes, Zlatan will be 36 by the time he makes his comeback, but he’s no mug. He’s a technically gifted player who has the strength to hold off opponents and set-up attacks, such as the move that lead to United’s winner against Southampton in the EFL Cup Final.
Last season he made 10 assists playing as a central striker so if he slots in just behind Lukaku there is scope for the Swede to create as well as score. In a recent interview with ESPN Ibrahimović admitted that “signing Lukaku makes us even stronger because he has different qualities from me as a striker and from Rashford as a striker. He is a powerful guy and he brings extra qualities in a game.”
United’s new number 10 is a canny enough operator to utilize Lukaku’s abilities for the benefit of the team.
Okay, so Zlat’s re-signing should be a qualified celebration?
Gabriele Marcotti made in interesting observation about Zlatan a few years ago. The Italian journalist noted:
“I have an Ibra theory, which is that any team with Ibra in it plays badly. No team has been able to play well with Ibra in it. The thing with Ibra is that when you have him in the team, it always makes sense to just hit a long ball to him. It would be stupid not to. Because even if Ibra is bad, it only takes a second for him to do something good and score. And football is a low-scoring game.”
Ibrahimović’s goal against Sunderland is a classic example of Marcotti’s theory. The Swede created something out of nothing in an otherwise ordinary performance against The Black Cats.
The difference this time around is that Zlatan may not need to be the focal point, with Lukaku providing an alternative option. This season United has more attacking weapons in the armory, meaning that Ibrahimović, if used correctly, can be part of a greater forward unit rather than being the sole goal threat. The challenge for Mourinho is to find a way to ensure that Ibra still scores without blunting other attacking players.
That said, while Zlatan may demand the spotlight, there’s little doubt that Mourinho trusts the Swede implicitly to make a positive impact both on and off the pitch. Indeed, United’s younger guns have nothing but respect for the former Swedish international so there’s nothing to suggest that he’d be a disruptive influence. With this United team maturing Zlatan could be the wise head required to guide the group in the right direction. If anything, his experience in winning league titles could prove invaluable should United be in with a shout come April and May.
And if United’s campaign turns long and arduous then having a fresh Ibrahimović for the second half of the season is a good option.
But I thought his re-signing would be universally accepted, he is Zlatan after all!
It’s not unfair to point out that Ibra “ummed” and “ahhed” about signing an extension with United before his injury, despite the club making it clear that he was wanted. That may not have sat well with some sections of the fan base.
To be fair he did accept lower wages after getting injured – forgoing around £13 million as a result. The fact that United allowed him to use their facilities for his rehabilitation didn’t go unnoticed by the Swede who has taken a wage cut to continue his career at Old Trafford.
Before we break out into a spontaneous round of applause he will still earn a reported £180,000-per-week, so he won’t be struggling financially.
Right, so there are pros and cons, but he’s Zlatan! Surely, he can be accommodated to some degree. Change in formation perhaps?
Right now it appears that Mourinho’s team is most comfortable in a 4-2-3-1 system as it allows for the right balance between defence and attack. Some have suggested that Mourinho could use a 3-5-2, but it’s a system that, at a guess, José would only employ if injuries or suspensions hit the squad.
It is more viable that Mourinho will use a 4-3-3, but it could sacrifice the team’s attacking potency. In this system Ibrahimović would have to play as the central striker meaning that, for example, Lukaku could be sent to a Edinson Cavani-esque exile on the left. Lukaku can play that role, as he has demonstrated for Everton, but that’s hardly be the best use of a £75 million attacking talent.
There are options that can help maximize Zlatan’s talents, but it should not be at the expense team development. José knows this and in all likelihood so does Ibra so shoehorns best be kept away.
So is bringing back Zlatan is a good thing?
Of course! From the point of view of the football romantic he has some unfinished business to take care of and despite the valid reservations he still provides everyone associated with United a lift. Zlatan is still box office and is as likely to win a match for United as anyone else. Having him in the squad is never a bad thing. Mourinho has no doubts.
“He is one more striker, he is one more experienced player, one more player,” said Mourinho. “There are lots of matches to play. 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. So if I need a striker, probably in January I would be knocking on Ed Woodward’s door and now I don’t need to.”
Besides that social media campaign was pretty slick.
Better than the Pogba/Stormzy announcement video?
There are some things that even Ibra can’t surpass. Back him in an arm-wrestling match though.