While it’s never good news to lose your top scorer, it’s temping to say that the injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic feels less of a blow specifically to his club Manchester United but more to the footballing world as a whole.
The Swede is expected to miss around nine months with an anterior cruciate ligament problem, with some fears that it has brought one of the great modern playing careers to an unexpected and premature end.
Relatively free of injury for much of his long and successful career, Ibrahimovic will be cursing his luck if an awkward fall at the end of normal time against Anderlecht is to end up being the way he bows out of a game he has lit up for close to two decades.
Still, the numbers do well to hide what has arguably been a disappointing season at United, with the 35-year-old showing his age at points after arriving for the first time in what is widely regarded as being the most competitive league in the world.
28 goals in all competitions suggest the touch is still there, and that kind of quality will be hard to replace, but here’s five reasons United fans need not feel too pessimistic about the final few games of the season…
Official Premier League stats show that Ibrahimovic has missed more ‘big chances’ than any other player in the division by some way.
Man Utd PL home record 2016/17
P17 W7 D9 L1
While the goals have largely flowed for the veteran centre-forward, he must also take his portion of the blame for United’s goal struggles for so much of this season, particularly at home against opponents the Red Devils would expect to beat.
United have won just seven of their 17 games at Old Trafford so far, with draws against the likes of Stoke, West Ham, Hull, Burnley, Bournemouth and West Brom precisely why the club are scrapping just to make the top four.
Ibrahimovic has missed 18 big chances for United, five more than Bournemouth’s Benik Afobe in second place.
Most big chances missed 2016/17Zlatan Ibrahimovic18Benik Afobe13Christian Benteke12Marko Arnautovic10Diego Costa10Sergio Aguero10Harry Kane9Roberto Firmino9
Injection of pace
It’s been impossible not to notice this season: Ibrahimovic’s misses are not the only reason they’ve struggled to break down teams – his lack of pace makes United too easy to defend against.
Jose Mourinho may complain about teams parking the bus at Old Trafford, but they’ve only been able to do so because defending deep has been so effective – all too often the Reds have lacked any one who can stretch a defence with runs in behind.
Never the quickest even at his peak, Ibrahimovic has certainly made the most of his lack of speed this season to establish himself as one of the most prolific players in the country, but it’s hard to imagine Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial won’t make the team look more dangerous overall.
Rashford replaced Ibrahimovic up front for extra time against Anderlecht, and capped a fine display with the winning goal. In the following match, we saw Martial use his pace to score in the win over Burnley.
Despite losing his top scorer, Mourinho is actually spoilt for choice in terms of pacey and exciting attacking players to fill that void.
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Others can step up
His ego demands it, and it’s little surprise that United have perhaps become overly reliant on Ibrahimovic to get them out of trouble this season.
The clear focal point of United’s attack whenever he’s started, other players in the squad have arguably not stepped up enough themselves when it’s been needed.
It is an age-old blessing and curse of having a world class striker in your squad – when the team is struggling, everyone will look for him, and that can lead to an overall lack of imagination from a side that should have more dimensions to it than simply lumping it to the big man up front.
Man Utd top PL scorers
Ibrahimovic – 17
Mata – 6
Rashford – 5
Martial, Pogba, Mkhitaryan – 4
Great coach as he is, Mourinho’s strength is not in inventive attacking plays, so things have gone a little route one at points this season. Without Ibra, players like Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan can perhaps step up and grow into becoming matchwinners themselves.
Paul Pogba could benefit
Speaking of Pogba, pundits seem agreed that the Frenchman would benefit from playing with a different kind of striker ahead of him.
For France, he has Antoine Griezmann; at Juventus, he had Alvaro Morata and Paulo Dybala – even £89million midfielders need quicker and more agile forwards to aim their passes at.
The 24-year-old has the playmaking abilities to split defences open as long as the right runs are being made – as evidenced by his superb pick-out of Rashford for the opening goal against Anderlecht last week.
‘He (Pogba) needs to play further up the pitch but when you do that, it helps to have a centre-forward with pace. They don’t have that with Zlatan Ibrahimovic,’ Paul Merson wrote in his Daily Star column last month.
While Pogba and Ibrahimovic have largely combined well this season, it has mainly been to the latter’s benefit, so it could be interesting to see how much better value for money Pogba could look with an attacking partner more suited to his style of play.
A glimpse of life next season
Finishing in the top four won’t be easy and the Europa League may now be United’s most realistic route into next season’s Champions League.
So for Mourinho to have an opportunity to experiment with new options up front might not be such a bad thing, especially as Ibrahimovic’s lengthy injury surely means he won’t be getting an extension to his contract.
The former Sweden international’s future was already in some doubt, and if he truly is out until January then there seems little sense in keeping him to play just half a season when he’ll be 36 and recovering from a long time out.
United are sure to be busy in the summer with new signings up front likely to be a priority, though Mourinho can effectively start his pre-season early by preparing his side for life without Ibrahimovic in their final few league matches.
Rashford and Martial already seem to be reaping the benefits of being the main men up front, and will be more motivated than ever to show their manager that he doesn’t need to fork out for Griezmann in the summer.