Yes, the great Zlatan Ibrahimovic is like a “fine wine”, and true, the Swede is making his critics “eat their words” with 13 Premier League goals, this season. However, Manchester United are far more fluid without the striker, and far more quicker when moving forward with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford playing.
It says a lot when the Red Devils had 21 and 27 shots in their previous two games – of which Zlatan did not play – compared to the 35-year-old’s most recent game, against West Ham, where they only registered 13 shots. The game was slow, and lacked any zip.
The Zlatan fans will come running straight to the No. 9’s defence with: ‘he’s won the Red Devils 10 points in the league this season, United would be a mid-table club without the former PSG man’; the defence for the Swede is likely to go on as long as an Arsene Wenger coat.
They have a point, and United certainly would be further down the league. However, now Jose Mourinho has found a system with his side, he knows the players better, and the boys are playing with some confidence, they look a better team without Zlatan.
With Ibra, United play to his strengths; that means being direct, and playing with the tendency to favour an aerial presence. Without him, United move the ball so much quicker, and use the channels far more effectively as they have the likes of Rashford and Martial running in behind. For all of Zlatan’s strengths, running off the ball is not one of them, and tracking back is just not on the Swede’s to-do list.
— rambostuff (@rambostuff) January 2, 2017
The good ol’ Fergie years – don’t worry, Red Devils are nearly over them – were famously so successful for expanding the pitch, and stretching teams. United don’t utilise the width half as much when playing with Zlatan which makes United so narrow going down the middle. Just look back to that West Ham game, even against 10 men, the Reds were predictable and easy to defend against. So, Jose brought Rashford on, who hugged the byline, and United looked far more dangerous.
They’ve followed suit in the following two games, expanding the play, and this time using the vast space on the Old Trafford pitch. The Red Devils could have beat Reading by seven or eight goals, as the combination of Martial and Rashford was so aggressive and quick. Just look at the opinions before Zlatan started poaching a few goals in December…
Has Man United played better or worse without star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic? #MUFC
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— Pulse Ghana (@PulseGhana) November 19, 2016
And exactly the same happened in the fixture against Hull, better speed, more zip, and the chaps playing with confidence. This time it was Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan; full of energy, running in behind, and actually defending from the top.
The presence of Zlatan would be intimidating, as a Northampton defender experienced as he referred to the Swede as the ‘Terminator’ back in September. But, having Zlatan up there allows for more space and time for the opposition to build from the back; Nicolás Otamendi managed to do it at Old Trafford.
The No. 9 can’t chase defenders around like a dog after hot chips anymore, it’s also not the Zlatan way. But, it is the United way, it is the way to run yourself into the ground as a Miki, Martial, Rashford and Jesse Lingard would do. These are the lads to build the next United great side, it’s more encouraging for Mourinho to utilise this more often, and not rely on a bloke who is nearing a retiring home – it’s not healthy for the club’s future.
No room for Ibrahimovic as Gary Neville names his Manchester United XI