Will Ibrahimovic’s ban end Manchester United’s top-4 hopes?
Saturday’s clash with Bournemouth should have been Manchester United’s big moment. Winning the EFL Cup the weekend before was supposed to be the catalyst to further success. However, rather than dispatching of a Bournemouth side looking for their first win of 2017, United squandered their chance to move up a position in the league on a permanent basis for the first time since October. A 1-1 draw was the best United could manage, poor finishing again undermining progress even though Bournemouth played the second half with 10 men.
United spurned five clear-cut goalscoring opportunities at Old Trafford, including a Zlatan Ibrahimovic penalty that was well saved by an inspired Artur Boruc. It was only the second time a Premier League side had missed so many big chances in a game this season. Unsurprisingly, Mourinho’s side were also the first to record the feat back in October against Stoke – another home game that ended in a draw.
Mourinho’s side have now drawn more games at home than they have won in the Premier League this season and it was their latest stalemate that was arguably the most frustrating. Not only did they fail to take full advantage of the fact Liverpool hosted Arsenal later that day, but they will now be without Ibrahimovic for their next three domestic matches. The 35-year-old will sit out the club’s FA Cup clash away to Chelsea on Monday, as well as league games against Middlesbrough and West Brom.
It could have been worse. United could have faced more strenuous league matches in that sequence, but it’s still a hammer blow for a United side that has been so wasteful in front of goal this season. In fact, Ibrahimovic, who despite having scored 15 league goals this season, has been the guiltiest culprit. The United No.9 has staggeringly missed eight more clear-cut chances than any other player in the Premier League this season (17), which proved particularly costly to United during a two-month spell in the build up to Christmas where the Swede went missing in front of goal.
The fact that this now sounds like a criticism of Ibrahimovic is were the underlying truth lies. United have been far too reliant on a player that is performing well beyond his advancing years. Ibrahimovic has scored 25 competitive goals this season; none of his teammates have even broken double figures yet.
Paul Pogba has divided opinion among supporters since his world record return to Old Trafford and these next three matches will be another huge test for the 23-year-old. While dominant 90-minute performances have been few and far between, United’s best moments have tended to revolve around Pogba. The precision of his passing is often a trait overlooked in his game but the understanding he has struck up with Ibrahimovic has been genuinely world class. Only Alexis Sanchez (54), Roberto Firmino (50) and Eden Hazard (48) have registered more key passes from open play in the Premier League this season than Pogba (47), but Ibrahimovic has benefited from 38% of those, while all four of Pogba’s assists this season have been converted by the Swede.
Ibrahimovic might be among the slowest of frontmen in the Premier League but his speed of thought and clever movement has been indispensable for United this season. Pogba has shown his ability to spot Ibrahimovic’s runs from almost anywhere on the pitch but now he must look to strike up a new partnership and quickly if United are to keep pace with their top four rivals. Matches against the likes of West Brom and Middlesbrough should be more than manageable for United, but it’s been those sides in the middle-to-lower-half of the table that the Red Devils have struggled to overcome.
Draws at home to Bournemouth, Stoke, Burnley, West Ham and Hull have seen United manage just four goals from 115 attempts. In contrast, the aforementioned opponents have scored as many times collectively from just 29 shots. Despite the fact only Tottenham (229) have attempted more shots from outside of the box than United in the Premier League this season (180), you cannot simply attribute speculative shooting as the reason behind this laughable statistic. The quality of chances they have passed up this season has been beyond comprehension for a squad now packed with so much quality, emphasised by the fact United have the worst big chance conversion rate in the league (31.5%).
The concern for Mourinho will now be that without Ibrahimovic they could struggle even more. “I have to agree with you that we don’t score enough goals,” the United boss conceded at the start of last month. “Some of our players from these attacking creative positions they could – they should – score more goals.”
In Ibrahimovic, United have not just lost a player capable of the spectacular, but also a target man that is able to bring others into play. Some of United’s finest work in attack has seen Ibrahimovic occupy pockets in front of the back four to allow the likes of Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to exploit the space left in behind. 19-year-old Marcus Rashford will be the natural choice to deputise in Ibrahimovic’s absence, but the approach will have to be slightly different.
Rather than dropping deep, Rashford’s natural instinct is to play off the last defender and use his searing pace to burn past defenders. While he does occasionally come short in search of possession, there will still be fewer chances for the remaining forward players to burst beyond the England international. Rashford made such an impact when he burst onto the scene midway through last season that it’s easy to forget he is still a teenager that only recently celebrated his first year of senior football.
The United manager has already conceded that supporters won’t get to see the best of Rashford until next season, but Mourinho will needs see an acceleration in his development for now. Rashford hasn’t scored in the league since September, although a chance to play through the middle where he flourished last season should help him rediscover his goalscoring touch.
He isn’t he only one that needs to step up. Even more will now be expected of Anthony Martial, who has only just won over Mourinho’s trust, but the key to United’s continuing their unbeaten run in the league – currently 17 matches – will be Mkhitaryan. Like Martial, the Armenia international needed nearly half a season to prove his worth to Mourinho, but his importance to the side has been underlined by Mourinho’s decision to drop Pogba back into midfield and make Mkhitaryan the focal point of the team behind the lone striker.
The 28-year-old has the unique ability to cover ground quicker with the ball at his feet than without, and his ability to pick a cutting pass should also help bring Rashford’s best skills into play, as the pair demonstrated in United’s 2-1 win over Blackburn in the FA Cup last month.
Mkhitaryan should be back at full fitness for the trip to Chelsea next week, which will perfectly coincide with the start of Ibrahimovic’s suspension. Keeping the Armenia international fit for the rest of the season should certainly help United remain competitive on all fronts but nothing will change unless they dramatically improve their finishing in front of goal. As it stands, only Middlesbrough (7.3%), Southampton (7.5%) and Hull (8.2%) have a worst conversion rate than United in the Premier League (8.7%) this season, and that simply isn’t good enough for a side looking to challenge for the league title, let alone the top four.
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