Opinion: We need to talk about Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Opinion: We need to talk about Zlatan Ibrahimovic

With key games coming up against Fenerbahce and Swansea City, there are key issues to resolve around United's star striker.

Nd Ekwegh

Goalscoring droughts have happened before. Seven games for Ruud Van Nistelrooy and 10 for Robin Van Persie both in seasons where they finished as their team’s top goal scorers and as title winners.

However, while both men had built up a huge tank of credit before the slump hit, for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whatever credit he had with the Manchester United fans evaporated when he was seen laughing and joking with Eden Hazard following United’s 4-0 loss to Chelsea.

Zlatan’s plight isn’t helped by a desire from United fans to see the home grown Marcus Rashford given a run through the middle with support from Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan out wide.

Why persist with Zlatan?

The question from a lot of United fans is why Jose Mourinho has persisted with the misfiring Swede, even playing him three times in seven days when at 35 years of age you would think his game time -especially in the whirlwind of the Premier League - needs managing.

Many have jumped on the band wagon of accusing Mourinho of being too afraid to drop the mercurial hitman, however this doesn’t take into account the manager's words at the start of the campaign when he explained Ibrahimovic’s arrival.

"34 is Zlatan’s age and 18 is Marcus Rashford’s age," he said. "34 plus 18 divided by two is the perfect age for a football player."

These were Mourinho’s words where he suggested that both would complement each other, meaning sometimes Zlatan would play and at other times Rashford would, or that they would play together.

It doesn’t sound like Jose was planning on playing Ibrahimovic week in week out, nor does it sound, especially when he added that "34 was not the perfect age", like this was what was promised to the Swede either.

The reason may be less sinister than fans have opined. It could simply be the reality that when top strikers are going through goal droughts, their managers keep playing them until they get a goal with the belief that once they get that goal they will be back to normal.

It was a ploy used by Sir Alex Ferguson with both his Dutch goal scorers when they went through patches of poor form and it is one that has been used for a lot of different centre forwards over the years.

The question is, when does this approach become harmful to the team?

Does Zlatan's presence hold the team back?

Most times, the managers believe that the long-term gain of having their top striker find his goalscoring form again is worth the short-term risk of carrying him in a game.

The last time for instance that Ibrahimovic went through a similar drought was while playing for Inter Milan under Roberto Mancini and he finished the team’s top goal scorer and a league winner to boot.

This time however, with United seven points off a top-four place and having dropped crucial points against Burnley and Stoke, the manager is left with a bit of a dilemma.

How long does he put all his eggs in the Zlatan basket? Were he to get a goal soon, the chances are he would go on a goalscoring run similar to the form he showed at the start of the season, but what if he doesn’t?

His last goal in the league came against Manchester City and he and his manager’s old foe, Pep Guardiola. There was something about the Swedish sensation in the game against City that suggested underneath all the bravado and self-worship lies a little insecurity created by Guardiola’s rejection.

Ultimately, he did not play like a man with a point to prove as would have been expected but more like one with a huge burden on his shoulders, the burden of Pep’s eyes. It was in that game that he missed his first big 'sitter' and he’s been missing them ever since.

At the time the miss was attributed to him being unaware of John Stones' presence on the line, but a lack of awareness is not something you associate with the big man.

Ever since that moment, bar a winning goal in the Europa League against Zorya, he hasn’t quite been the same. Key misses against Liverpool, Chelsea (with the game at 1-0), Watford (at 0-0) to mention a few even before his complete meltdown against Burnley.

Even against Manchester City in the cup when given the opportunity to banish the demons from the earlier derby, having been serviced with an impeccable pass from Rashford, he still fluffed his lines.

For a player for whom composure is one of his main assets, the Swede has surprisingly been lacking it in recent weeks.

4-1-2-1-2 - the way forward?

The alternative to complete exclusion may be to offer Ibrahimovic some help up top. Mourinho suggested from the start that he did not believe in having one particular system but that it was in fact the players he had at his disposal that would determine the system that he'd adopt.

Chelsea have gone from clowns to title contenders due to a tactical shift by Antonio Conte to 3-4-3, following an embarrassing defeat to Arsenal, and maybe it is time Jose tweaked his system as well.

To accommodate United’s best players in their best positions, Jose should probably be going down the route of switching to a diamond. In this system, Paul Pogba can play on the right side of the diamond - which is his best position - while you could have Michael Carrick at the base, and then Juan Mata or Mkhitaryan (once he’s up to match speed) in the hole behind the centre forwards.

Ander Herrera could start on the left of the diamond and up top Ibrahimovic with the speedy Marcus Rashford next to him (granted you could play Rashford and Anthony Martial up front, but let’s assume Ibra stays in the team). The width can then be provided by United’s full-backs in Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw.

Should Jose revert to this system, he may be able to give Zlatan more opportunities to break his goal drought without it being at the detriment of picking up points. In many ways, you almost wonder why Jose has not tried this already.

United are already playing catch-up and cannot afford to fall any further behind, big managers need to make big decisions and right decisions. Over to you, Jose.