There’s a saying that suggests that when one door closes another one opens. That’s rather how it feels after the news this week that Zlatan Ibrahimovic suffered tears to both his anterior and cruciate ligaments in the Europa League game against Anderlecht. It’s absolutely awful news and a potentially career ending injury for a player who has made an absolutely remarkable contribution to United’s season at the age of 35. He’ll leave United an icon, the ego and touch of class that the club needed to bridge the gap from the Van Gaal to Mourinho eras and his 28 goals, including those two wonderful strikes in the final of the League Cup, will long live in the memory. He added big game mentality to a squad which had very little.
But his injury, on a professional level, does not feel as devastating as it may have done two or three months ago. The Swede was in a patch of very poor form and was having a wretched night against the Belgians. Regardless of performance, Mourinho has refused to substitute Ibrahimovic and has relentlessly selected him when fit. As Steve Armstrong (@sarm0161) quipped on Twitter, “Ibrahimovic doing his cruciate doesn’t necessarily mean Mourinho won’t start him tomorrow”. The previous weekend against Chelsea we had seen the devastating impact that Marcus Rashford’s pace, movement and skill could have on a high class defence, something again in evidence against Anderlecht, and it was impossible not to be frustrated at the sight of the static Zlatan, giving the ball away and impacting on the functioning of the rest of the attack and, due to his inability to press, the defence too. Back in 2006 Fergie decided to sideline and eventually sell a truly great striker, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, in favour of the pacy and more dynamic Louis Saha, a decision which to a degree freed Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney to interchange positions and roam, resulting in a far more devastating forward line and a Premier League title in 2007 after a four year barren run. This feels very similar, and the week’s football has done little to dampen that opinion.
There has been some speculation as to whether United will offer Ibrahimovic a new contract regardless of his injury. I’m surprised that this discussion is even a ‘thing’. Some want the club to employ the Swede on £290k per week, as a cheerleader? Didn’t we just sell one of those to Chicago Fire? The club have, if Mourinho is to be believed, wanted to tie Zlatan to a new contract for weeks, but that the player has been unwilling to commit. That is a risky game and one which, unfortunately, has backfired. Although it is far from a priority when a player gets a serious injury, United will be feeling extremely relieved to have dodged a £15m bullet.
With United having made desperately hard work of Anderlecht, the honours fell to Marcus Rashford, a truly prodigious talent, to score a world class goal to move United into the semi-finals of the Europa League, where they will face Celta Vigo. Three days later it was Anthony Martial who excelled, scoring from a wonderfully swift counter-attack to set up the team’s comfortable 2-0 win at Burnley. It was the sort of goal that would not have been scored with Ibrahimovic in the team and was exactly the type of exhilarating move that we have long missed. Martial was the one player that LVG allowed to have a degree of freedom last season, which the Frenchman repaid with some wonderful performances and goals. Both he and Rashford have suffered this year, tied to the left touchline, and the hope is that both can flourish when given licence to roam.
Whilst there may be life after Zlatan, it is hard to find positives from Marcos Rojo’s knee ligament injury. Written off at the start of the season (even by his own manager if you believe Castles), he was thrown in at centre back against Swansea in Wales and has not looked back, establishing himself as the natural partner to the absurdly gifted Eric Bailly. Even if Jones and Smalling were fit, the drop off in performances when either Bailly or Rojo have been absent has been stark. With both out Daley Blind will manfully stand in, effectively so at Turf Moor, but his physical attributes limit his game and Mourinho is clearly not sold on the player at all, let alone in that position. On a personal level, the injuries to Rojo and Zlatan are devastating. It was strange to see United fans on social media flipping their lids at the squad wearing t-shirts during the warm up at Burnley in support of their stricken teammates. If that offended you then a reevaluation of your life is required. Really, who gives a shit?
After United moved onto twenty three Premier League games unbeaten with the win at Turf Moor, where Pogba, Herrera, Bailly and Martial were exceptional and Wayne Rooney scored on his return to the side, Jose Mourinho could not help but have a few more digs at his own players. Challenging them is one thing, but his attacks have seemed so personal at times and it is becoming clear that for some he cannot offer a compliment without also having a dig. Of Martial’s contribution on Sunday he said, “Today he showed attitude and appetite. We’re pleased that we have a new player until the end of the season.” Or perhaps we should be pleased that his manager played him in a position and with a freedom which gets the best out of the player? Neither side is likely blameless for the Frenchman’s struggles this season, but it is hard to shake the feeling that it was unnecessary for the likes of Martial, Shaw and Mkhitaryan to have been ostracised and dragged over the coals publicly when all three seem like the sort of characters who would revel in their manager’s trust.
Post-match Mourinho also spoke about Paul Pogba limping off the field near the end of the match:
“If he is injured or if it is just super accumulation of fatigue in the muscles I don’t know.”
Given that the player has shown clear signs of fatigue for a couple of months, having been ragged twice a week all season without the benefit of a pre-season, perhaps it may have been wise to substitute him earlier in a game which United were winning at a canter?
Finally, Mourinho couldn’t help taking another pop at the injured Chris Smalling and Phil Jones:
“If I was Smalling or Jones I would play Thursday (at City). I would not accept one guy play 9 games in a row (Bailly) because I am injured. If they have a crazy mentality like I have they would. If it was me nobody would stop me to play.”
This, to me, seems wildly irresponsible, the sort of pressure that takes no account of the unique nature of every injury, or the pain or impairment that each gives to the sufferer. Is it brave to force yourself to play at the Etihad half fit, as Chris Smalling did at Stamford Bridge in the 4-0 defeat, and as a result make a game defining mistake or aggravate your injury and miss the remainder of the season? Given the way that Jones took the risk of returning early for the 3-1 win at Swansea in late 2016, does Mourinho now imagine that he’s holding back or has become less brave or trustworthy? If Smalling plays and makes an error which costs his team the game and (probably) United a top four place, will his manager sympathise or crucify him for it? There is no doubt that the Portuguese is taking the club in the right direction and has improved a number of his players, but his willingness to openly criticise others ignores his own contribution to their underperformance, and his total devotion to Ibrahimovic has arguably stunted the development of other attacking players.
United have this week been linked with a £25m move for former youth product and now Burnley defender Michael Keane. Keane is having a good season, but seems short of the sort of class that Mourinho should be targeting this summer. The game on Sunday did little to challenge the opinion that Eric Bailly is miles ahead of Keane and it is his level of ability that United should be aiming for when searching for a partner for the wonderful Ivorian.
United go to the Etihad this week with momentum, where they will face a City side who played for two hours at Wembley yesterday and were ultimately defeated. With Liverpool stumbling again the chance of a top four place, whilst still a long shot, is in United’s hands for the first time since September.
I want to end this week’s blog by offering praise to some squad members who have performed admirably in recent weeks but who are often much maligned (at times by me). Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini and Mattel Darmian. I salute thee.