With the news of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s three-match domestic ban confirmed at the time of writing, and Manchester United, as a consequence, facing the prospect of playing competitive football matches without their talisman and top scorer, there is some suspicion among Reds as to whether Jose Mourinho’s side can carry their reasonably strong run of form since early November, on to the coming weeks.
The 35-year old, will as a result of the ban, not only miss United’s FA Cup outing at Stamford Bridge but also the following two league games against Middlesbrough away from home and West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford where anything less than six points will severely dent their ambitions to finish in the top four.
One of the main criticisms leveled at United this season has been the over-reliance on Ibrahimovic, who even by his lofty standards, can be satisfied with his phenomenal goal return (26 in all competitions) even if he never scored again between now and the end of the season.
His 15 goals have been worth a total of 11 points for the Red Devils in the Premier League and have massively helped them get over the line in the EFL cup final, in a game they were second best for an overwhelming majority of the time. He has had a direct influence on 50% of United’s 38 goals in the league but is not limited to just goals as he has been central to the way Manchester United have played under Jose Mourinho, with his powerful presence in the final third often giving the side the ability to switch to a functional plan B without having to introduce Marouane Fellaini.
There is little doubt that his absence in the aforementioned three games will affect United’s style of play but whether or not it will have a negative bearing on the results is still up for debate and only time will tell whether there should even be one. As with every cloud there is a silver lining, and fortunately Mourinho and Man United are not short of options to call upon if they needed someone to fill in for the big man.
Last season’s top scorer with 17 goals – Anthony Martial could be in the running as could skipper Wayne Rooney with an outside chance, who has scored a paltry 2 goals in 9 Premier League starts.
But there lies sound logic for Mourinho to finally use 19-year old Marcus Rashford in his favored position – up top on his own in these three games, as an audition to see if the Wythenshawe-born youngster can be United’s long-term solution to scoring goals, which has been a significant issue in the last three seasons.
So far, the numbers suggest he very well can be. Rashford burst onto the scene in the Europa League, after being named in the squad as a last minute inclusion due to Martial’s injury and the forward grabbed his chance with both arms when he scored the brace against Midtjylland that sparked a sense of optimism the crowd had not felt in a long time.
The forward then went on to score vital goals in the Premier League – notably against Arsenal and Man City at the Etihad, FA Cup – when he scored in the Quarter-final replay at the Boleyn Ground which was one of the goals of the season for United. He scored at the rate of 1 in every 2 games in the league under Louis van Gaal when United were not renowned for playing attacking football – in fact the emphasis was often placed on possession and control than trying to outscore the opposition. He operated with a ruthlessness that United lack today, in a much less potent system in terms of chance creation and shot attempts from dangerous zones.
But this campaign has seen an upturn in every attacking area – be it number of scoring opportunities created from open play, number of shots on target per game, number of shots attempted per game so on and so forth and clearly, Mourinho has bought into United’s traditions and released the shackles that were holding them back in the last two seasons. Rashford himself, despite the reduced number of appearances, especially in his favored position up front, has managed a respectable total of 8 goals in 18 starts across all competitions.
In 36 appearances under the Portuguese, he has been asked to play up front from the start, only four times. In those games, he scored a brace and set up another goal against Reading in the FA Cup and netted the opening goal against Blackburn which perfectly illustrated the alternative threat he could bring with him – driving with searing pace through the middle latching on to a fine through ball from Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
It was in some ways a glimpse in to how Manchester United could attack without Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the three games that the Swede will miss due to suspension, which is completely different but not necessarily worse. Despite the quality of opposition being considerably inferior, Rashford has the backing of experience behind him having done it in the past, out of virtually nowhere – to replicate it again in the coming weeks if he is called upon.
Marcus Rashford’s career so far, has been built on taking chances and converting them to great performances and important goals – both literally and figuratively and who is to say he cannot do it another time.