Ibrahimovic: Finding his feet in the English isles

For United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, eight goals in 17 matches across all competitions is a startling decline from his 50 goals in 56 fixtures for Paris Saint-Germain last season. It’s all the more worrisome when viewed against fellow 2016/17 Premier League forwards like Diego Costa (12 in 16), Sergio Aguero (14 in 15) and Romelu Lukaku (10 in 13).

Zlatan Ibrahimovic... two goals against Swansea in the EPL.   -  Reuters

“I am coming. I am excited. I am Zlatan.” That was the message that greeted Manchester United fans when Swedish hotshot Zlatan Ibrahimovic revealed he had signed for Jose Mourinho’s team in the summer. That, along with a clear statement of intent — there was to be no sideshow, only one objective mattered: “I have come to win, I haven’t come to waste time.” Well he came, he scored, but he’s certainly not conquered anything. Yet!

For while his most recent performance — and crucially his two goals — helped end United’s five-match Premier League winless run (after securing a 3-1 away victory over Swansea), it came against a side joint bottom of the League. All too willing to capitulate, Swansea at times gave little indication of wanting to prevent relegation, a fate they currently seem destined for, as they were brushed aside with the meekest of efforts.

The ease with which United won was demonstrated by Swansea’s struggle to penetrate their visitors’ defence; one hampered by injuries and consisting of players deployed out of position and a returning Phil Jones, who was making his first appearance since January. Just one shot on target was recorded, that being the late consolation goal from Martin van der Hoorn. A side suffering a precarious slump and plum for the taking by the hosts desperate for points were instead invited to wander the pitch almost unrestricted.

However, you can only beat what is in front of you. And United managed just that, ensuring the title race did not get away from them any further, under the watchful gaze of Mourinho from up in the stands as he completed his touchline ban. Maybe it would be advisable for Mourinho to take his lofty perch more often, especially if it means his talisman, Ibrahimovic, scores. Over 10 hours of football had passed since Ibrahimovic last netted a league goal before his 21st-minute strike at the Liberty Stadium.

Brought in to answer United’s goal-scoring issues, a problem Mourinho originally highlighted when approaching the Old Trafford board members for the manager’s job, Ibrahimovic has on the most part faltered at his primary task. Eight goals in 17 matches across all competitions for United is a startling decline from his 50 goals in 56 fixtures for Paris Saint-Germain last season. It’s all the more worrisome when viewed against fellow 2016/17 Premier League forwards like Diego Costa (12 in 16), Sergio Aguero (14 in 15) and Romelu Lukaku (10 in 13).

Used to teams formed around him, utilising his natural assets of height and strength as well as skill, Ibrahimovic now must bow to a pragmatic Mourinho, whose penchant since the summer for tinkering with tactics and formations requires the ageing forward to work on subtle changes in his role. Chiefly implemented as the sole striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Ibrahimovic’s task has proved a difficult one.

The modern lone striker no longer poaches goals, buzzing around the 6-yard box waiting for the ball to drop, or hover off the shoulder of the last defender, seeking to take advantage of a burst of pace and go through one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

Now they must hurry defenders, press from the top, hold the ball up and link with those advancing from midfield, drop deep when necessary and drag opponents out of position to allow team-mates to dart into the space created. None of this has been a problem for Ibrahimovic until this season.

But then the 35-year-old has spent the previous half-a-decade at the best club in Ligue 1, in a competition of reduced quality compared to that of the Premier League. Certainly the unrelenting pace of the British domestic league is a tougher challenge, demanding more of those participating than probably any other league. Yet time catching up on Ibrahimovic is not the lone reason for his frustrating start with the Red Devils. He has joined a team where Mourinho is fitting square pegs into round holes, as he attempts to counter opposition sides and search for his best starting XI. With no clear identity or method, the players will understandably be affected.

In Ibrahimovic’s case, it’s meant the lack of a second striker to work with and do most of the running for him, or wide men stretching play and causing mayhem to the opposition defence. The match at Swansea did provide glimpses that Mourinho may be rectifying this. Rooney and Pogba both made the most of opportunities on the left wing, thanks in part to the reassuring game from Michael Carrick as a deep-lying creative midfielder.

But before United fans can see whether Ibrahimovic’s form is on the rise, they will first find out what life without him looks like, after he picked up his fifth yellow card of the season and an automatic one-match ban.