You know that bit in Return of the King when Aragorn, the rightful newly crowned sovereign of the land, tells the kneeling Hobbits to rise? And then he says to these noble countryfolk who sacrificed so much “you bow to no man” right? Zlatan Ibrahimovic would never do that. He’d make the Hobbits bow.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not a humble king, but a king he most certainly is. Last season, at 34 years of age, he walked into Old Trafford and immediately established himself as the cock of the walk. He’s the kind of conqueror that can rally a team behind him. He delivered two trophies before injury took him down just a month before he could deliver a third. Manchester United did so anyway, with Zlatan palming the thing in one hand like it was a basketball.
When they call him statuesque it’s literal, he looks chiselled out of marble. And just four months after tearing his cruciate ligaments he’s not only back spin kicking heavy bags and terrifying Eric Bailly, but he’s back in a Manchester United shirt and ready to play a role in the Red Devils’ title challenge – well, just as soon as he’s fully healed from the injury which is looking like January 2018 at the latest.
But just how much of a role will he play when he’s fit? And where will he fit in? Squawka investigates!
Of course, the main way that Manchester United could line up now that Zlatan is back is… exactly the way they’ve been lining up. The stupendous Swede is a great signing but it’s not likely that he will be first-choice given his age and the vibrancy of Romelu Lukaku.
The Belgian will be the club’s first-choice striker for the majority of matches, with Zlatan playing a key role in coming off the bench to add height or control, or both. Or just to let him soak in the adoration of the crowd like the prized gladiator he is.
Of course if Lukaku is injured or suspended or just plain tired, Mourinho will bring the mighty Zlatan back into the first-team. A change in shape won’t be necessary, as both Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan displayed a keen understanding with Zlatan last season.
One change will have to be made, though. With Zlatan’s lack of pace and his tendency to drop deep and get involved in play, a winger who does that is thus unnecessary. So United will look to add pace out wide and who better than Mourinho’s favourite wing workhorse, Jesse Lingard?
With Lingard and Rashford out wide and Mkhitaryan floating in behind, United would look like a more potent version of the side they were last year. But that’s just the first way they can incorporate Zlatan.
Team Strike Force
Everyone loves strikers, but the problem with playing more than two at a time is things tend to get real narrow real fast and toes get trodden on like way back at your first school disco. But United are blessed because their three strikers are actually fairly compatible.
For starters, only one of them is slow. And the other two are actually capable of playing wide. Rashford obviously has developed a second career of playing wide because of Mourinho’s phobia of young players, and while Lukaku is obviously a No.9 – if you recall he used to play wide at times for Everton.
Roberto Martinez sought to expand his skill-set by putting him in a position where he could run at defenders with the ball at his feet, and it worked too. United could put him in a similar position and, with Rashford flying in from the other flank, Zlatan could play as a false nine and United would be a fluid front three that could rip opponents to bits.
Death From Above
Everyone knows Manchester United are a tall side now. Enormous, really. They could put a team out where every single player stands over six foot tall. Ibrahimovic’s arrival only increases the height of the side and, should Mourinho really want to throw things into the mixer late on, he has a big option.
Playing a forward pair of Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic ahead of Marouane Fellaini as a battering-ram No.10 (and lest we forget Paul Pogba, who should be fit when Ibrahimovic returns) and just lumping big arcing crosses into the area would cause absolute havoc. There are few if any defences in the world that can cope with that level of aerial bombardment.
Death from Above, indeed.
Of course Mourinho could always just go all Tony Pulis on us. Two strikers, two wingers, no fuss – just rock and roll old-school Manchester United football. Up-front you put Ibrahimovic and Lukaku next to each other, a muscular duo where the Swede functions as more of a target, allowing Lukaku to simply focus on running channels and causing danger that way.
Out wide, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will function as devastatingly creative wingers. Both are capable of cutting inside with some sensational dribbling, but equally able to flooding on the outside of full-backs and sending in dangerous crosses to the towering forwards.