Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s knee injury sustained in the Europa League victory against Anderlecht threw down a gauntlet to the club’s other forwards to fire the team in to the Champions League.
Pundits have long surmised that Manchester United would struggle without their Swedish talisman. This is due to the amount of goals he has scored and that those goals represent a quarter of the team’s total number of goals. However, it has not quite turned out that way, as the team arguably looks more dynamic without him.
It was palpable against Anderlecht that after the vibrant attacking display produced against Chelsea by Rashford and Lingard, that fluidity largely disappeared with Ibrahimovic back in the team.
Ibra being slated and rightly so. Like playing with 10 men when he's like this. Get Rash up there and give Pog & Mik a target for passes
— James (@writtenoff_mufc) April 20, 2017
Jose Mourinho has completely built his team around Ibrahimovic this season, which for the most part has proved to be successful, barring the 609 minutes he went without scoring a Premier League goal in October.
The somewhat slow, predictable build-up that is required with Ibrahimovic in the team has perhaps contributed to the persistent struggle to break opposition teams down, which has come into a magnified focus after a series of disappointing draws at home.
One of those games was against Burnley in October, when Ibrahimovic’s profligacy in front of goal was peaking. The weekend just gone however, the team attacked very differently in the reverse fixture.
Man Utd playing with so much more imagination, pace, space now that Zlatan is off. As I keep saying, it's no coincidence.
— Graham Ruthven (@grahamruthven) April 20, 2017
There were runs in behind stretching Burnley’s defence, incisive counter-attacks and generally more aggressive attacking play. Martial leading the line in this game was the decisive factor, as he showed his credentials as a lone striker.
He recorded more sprints (73) than anyone else on the pitch, which is important given that Jose Mourinho’s criticism of the player related to his willingness to work off the ball. Moreover, he was decisive with his contribution of a goal and an assist.
The nature of Martial’s contribution is important as he showed blistering speed running with the ball and quick footwork to interchange with other attackers. This was similar to Rashford’s display against Chelsea and shows a glimpse of what a future without Ibrahimovic might look like.
“In that goal [Martial against Burnley], and the Rashford goal last week, there is maybe a glimpse of the future,” Gary Neville said on Sky Sports’ commentary. “United have players that can run and challenge that space in behind. It is something United have always had.”
Fingers crossed for Zlatan, but the stark truth is we are a better ‘team’ with pace as the focus of our attack. Simple fact. #MUFC
— Rob B. (@_Rob_B) April 20, 2017
A key reference point here is when Alex Ferguson decided to sell the prolific goal-poacher Ruud van Nistelrooy after three seasons without a Premier League title. This allowed the younger more swashbuckling talents of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo the freedom to interchange in attack in a way that wasn’t possible with a more traditional number nine in the team.
The decision was vindicated as United won three titles on the bounce and a Champions League trophy. It remains to be seen what will come of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s club future in the wake of the injury but Martial and Rashford have shown that he is not imperative for this team team to score goals. In fact, the team may even score more goals without him.