Could Man Utd's dependency on Zlatan Ibrahimovic be problematic?
By Nick Wright
Last Updated: 07/03/17 3:59pm
Manchester United suffered a blow to their top four hopes as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Bournemouth at Old Trafford. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's subsequent ban could be even more problematic. Is their dependency on the Swedish striker becoming an issue? We take a look...
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has made a stunning impact on English football. His match-winning double in the EFL Cup final took him to 26 goals for the season, and last week Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho even backed the 35-year-old to go on and win his first Ballon d'Or award.
The plaudits are well deserved, but after a run of seven goals in six games, the big Swede had a rare off day against Bournemouth on Saturday. With the incident-packed 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, United stayed in sixth place and missed the chance to put pressure on their top-four rivals.
Ibrahimovic failed to find the net despite taking seven shots on goal over the course of the 90 minutes. He was unable to convert Anthony Martial's cross from a few yards out in the early stages, and he was back in the spotlight when his low penalty was saved by Artur Boruc in the second half.
Between those two moments, however, the biggest talking point of the game came when he appeared to elbow Tyrone Mings in retribution for a stamp by the Bournemouth defender moments earlier. Both players avoided punishment and later insisted the incidents were not deliberate, but Ibrahimovic has since been handed a three-game ban, while Mings has appealed his charge.
"They will be looking back at that and Zlatan will be getting a ban, there's no doubt about that," said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher afterwards. "He should have been sent off, which could have cost his team, and he's now going to get a big ban."
Saturday's game was a reminder of just how much Mourinho's side have come to depend on Ibrahimovic. When he's not firing, they tend to struggle.
As well as the Bournemouth game, it's no coincidence that their dismal run of form between September and December, when they won just two Premier League games out of 11, coincided with Ibrahimovic's most barren run since his arrival at the club in the summer.
Points won by player goals - Premier League 2016/17
In fact, with his 15 goals this season, Ibrahimovic has won United 11 points in the Premier League. The stats show no player's goals have won more. The former Paris Saint-Germain striker has scored almost 40 per cent of United's league goals this season - only Everton's Romelu Lukaku and Sunderland's Jermain Defoe have contributed a higher share of their side's total.
Players with highest share of team's goals - Premier League 2016/17
|Zlatan Ibrahimovic||Man Utd||15||39||38%|
It's a measure of his outstanding impact but it's also a potential headache for Mourinho, who has given Ibrahimovic more Premier League minutes than any other outfield player this season. "He has to play every game at the moment," said Gary Neville on Monday Night Football.
A suspension for a run of games which includes an FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea could be costly. "It will be a big blow," said Carragher. "We said on MNF that he has carried Manchester United at times with his performances. Jose Mourinho knows how big a miss he will be."
Mourinho could turn to Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford or Wayne Rooney, but no other United player has even reached double figures for goals this season. What's more, Ibrahimovic brings a lot more to the table than just goals. He ranks first at United for clear-cut chances created and second for assists.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Manchester United contribution
|Premier League 2016/17||Total||Man Utd rank|
|Shots on target||43||1st|
|Clear-cut chances created||8||1st|
There are also vital qualities beyond the stats. "The other players on his team will look at him in the tunnel and they'll just feel confident by him being there," added Neville. "Over the last three years, United have lacked personality and character. In him they've got someone who believes and does everything he says he's going to do."
That leadership is impossible to replace. Saturday's game provided a reminder that he cannot save them every week. Ibrahimovic has been a huge success at United, but the flipside is that their dependency could prove problematic.