Management, for better or worse, is about making tough decisions. There is a line between loyalty to a player, friend, or employee and what is best for the club. Players, for all of their ephemeral worth, are never more important than the club itself. Whatever is best for the club must prevail. In this spirit, despite José Mourinho’s long-standing relationship with Zlatan Ibrahimović, it may be time for the Portuguese coach to make another big decision.
Sentimentality is not fundamentally compatible with those decisions either. Mourinho’s delay in ending the ‘Wayne Rooney conundrum’ taught a salutary lesson. Drawing out what became a saga and then a farce, and eventually a running joke, hurt Manchester United. Rooney’s elimination from the first team was not the cure to United’s woes, but it was the first step. Other tactically baffling selections have also been harmful to the Red Devils. Rooney is no longer starting, but other on-the-field questions linger. Why, for example, is Marouane Fellaini so often in the team? The Belgian is an occasionally useful but essentially limited footballer who rarely excels going forward or in defence. His inclusion hurts his team and particularly his partners in midfield.
Ahead of Fellaini on the pitch comes another major issue – one that will likely become a jarring one unless Mourinho makes another swift decision. Ibrahimović’s struggles are clear; the uncertainty and doubt creeping in. The Swede’s performances are not only hurting his reputation, but are now costing the club points.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Is this a sign of decline or temporary slump in form? Ibrahimović’s one goal in 10 games contrasts with an outstanding career. The dip should only be temporary. Yet, it is also his most severe drought since 2007.[/blockquote]
During United’s draw with Burnley on Saturday Ibrahimović failed to convert three chances presented by Paul Pogba. The shocking miss from just a couple of yards out near the end of the game summed up an awful day’s work. What’s more, these misses have become common in recent times, and Mourinho’s side is steadily slipping down the table in the process.
In recent fixtures the Swede has tallied a stunning 35 shots on goal, with no addition to the scoreboard in that time. His build up play is often classy, but ultimately with just one assist to show, the all-round contribution is not nearly enough either. Indeed, that assist was an under-hit pass that only just made Juan Mata before the Spaniard dispatched it against Manchester City in the League Cup. The long-held sense of quality and calmness that we associate with Ibrahimović appears to lacking – for such a famously confident player the former PSG striker is short his normal brooding conviction.
Questions remain as to whether this is a sign of decline or a temporary slump in form. Ibrahimović’s one goal in 10 games contrasts with an outstanding career goalscoring history. The dip should therefore only be temporary. Yet, it is also his most severe goalscoring drought since 2007. It is not unfair to ask if indeed father time is catching up with one of this generation’s greatest players.
Resting the 35-year-old is not a destructive option. Ibrahimović may want no part of the bench, but it would have benefits for both player and club. Rest may reinvigorate the Swede and rotation keep him fresh for the most important games. Like Michael Carrick, it is unreasonable to expect Ibrahimović to play every game. Mourinho understands this, but has used the striker more often than not. The United manager may want to ‘turn back the clock’ on Carrick’s career, but the Geordie is now used sparingly. Perhaps the same standards should apply to both players?
“He’s phenomenal, no doubt about it, but I think I have to manage him,” Mourinho said of Carrick last week. “I can’t expect from Michael what I expect from Rashford or Herrera in terms of playing three to five consecutive matches, but he’s phenomenal.”
The same is true of United’s number nine. After all, Ibrahimović is only a few months younger than Carrick with a similar number of career miles on his. And Mourinho is fortunate that he has fine alternatives in striking positions. Marcus Rashford’s goals have principally come from central areas, and more time at nine would suit both the team and the youngster’s ongoing development. Anthony Martial is a more than adequate option as well, and thrived playing through the middle last season. In fact, Martial’s dip in form while playing on the left might be revered with a fresh start in a central role.
The other strategy is hope: that Ibrahimović’s form will return and that the fans’ goodwill will not wear thin. Despite Ibrahimović’s global standing there is no bank of loyalty from the terraces.
Tough decisions must be made. The next major item on Mourinho’s agenda is surely the Swede’s immediate future. It may be best for player, manager and team to give the number 9 a few nights off.