Zlatan Ibrahimovic may have played his final game for Manchester United. For so much of the season the man to haul the Red Devils over the line in games, his knee ligament injury picked up against Anderlecht could see him ruled out until 2018. Despite his talismanic nature, however, not having to rely on the Swede is just what this United team needs.
Though few would argue Ibrahimovic deserves a far better farewell than watching on from the sidelines – particularly with the Europa League final taking place in his home city of Stockholm next month – the truth is that Jose Mourinho’s young guns have finally found their feet without him.
Against both Chelsea and Anderlecht, Marcus Rashford came to the fore as he was given the freedom to run in behind from a central position and instil the same fear into opposition defenders as he had done during the latter part of last season. At Burnley, it was Anthony Martial’s turn to deliver on the early promise he showed following his arrival from Monaco in the summer of 2015.
With Rashford rested ahead of the Manchester derby on Thursday, many expected Wayne Rooney to be deployed in a central striker’s role. But Mourinho - perhaps sensing a vulnerability in Burnley’s defence that few have taken advantage of this season – instead opted for Martial as his No.9, with Rooney positioned on the left-hand side of the front three.
Finally playing in his preferred position, Martial flourished. After offering a glimpse of what he can be capable of with a run inside from the left and low cross that Rooney really should have converted, he opened the scoring with a goal that harked back to the good old days of the Sir Alex Ferguson era.
Picking up the ball around the halfway line, the France international drove at the home defence, played a clever one-two with Ander Herrera and finished with aplomb past Tom Heaton. The counterattacking nature left United supporters purring – with many asking if such a goal would have been possible had Ibrahimovic been playing. For all of Zlatan’s brilliance, the answer is probably no.
From there United took control, with Martial again at the heart of the second goal that sealed all three points before half-time. Again he drifted out to the left before forcing Heaton into a save with an angled shot that Rooney was able to bundle over the line from the second attempt. They now sit just one point behind City heading into the derby, and in this form they head to the Etihad with more than just a swinger’s chance of finishing in the top four.
Despite getting himself on the scoresheet for the first time since January, the future does not look as rosy for Rooney as it does for both Martial and Rashford. Ibrahimovic’s injury is likely to mean more appearances for the United captain in the closing weeks of the season, but they represent nothing more than a short farewell tour. Now is the time for United to move on. Both Ibrahimovic and Rooney will be remembered fondly by supporters but they need to be just memories this time next year.
As it stands, the option of a second year at Old Trafford remains on the table for Ibrahimovic, but United would be foolish not to withdraw this contract offer. Offering him use of their facilities so he can recover and see out the final years of his career elsewhere would certainly be a goodwill gesture few would turn their nose up at given the goals he has scored this season. But the fact is that United can win without Zlatan, and with style too.