Manchester United Forwards Demonstrate Life After Zlatan May Be Even Brighter

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistApril 24, 2017

Could this be the start of a beautiful relationship after Anthony Martial finally earned praise from Jose Mourinho?
Could this be the start of a beautiful relationship after Anthony Martial finally earned praise from Jose Mourinho?Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Given it's the most sentimental of sports, football can't half demonstrate a cold heart.

Just a few days after Zlatan Ibrahimovic suffered significant knee ligament damage against Anderlecht, there's a pervading sense obituaries about his time in England have already been drafted and placed on file. It's hard to tell whether a surgeon is required or an embalmer.

For many, it seems the Swede's sojourn in England flat-lined on Thursday evening. Time was effectively drawn on a breathless affair the moment he exchanged a knowing look with the club's bench. His eyes told the story.

Ibrahimovic took to Instagram on Sunday to inform the world with a chirpy irreverence he has no intention of bowing out quietly. Still, in years to come, the sight of him being helped to his feet like an old man who has taken a fall may prove a go-to clip when splicing together montages of the most glorious of careers. Let's hope it comes to signify defiance rather than the end.

He had barely clambered off the physio's table when people started to say Manchester United might be better off without him.

Sunday's stroll against Burnley, during which Anthony Martial reminded everyone he remains a prodigious talent, when coupled with the rested Marcus Rashford's virtuoso match-winning displays against Chelsea and Anderlecht, has escalated talk to be about what Manchester United could be without Ibrahimovic rather than what they will miss in his absence. The wake has begun before the service has finished.

Somehow, even in a side that has struggled for goals all season, he has become a 28-goal problem. His goals have provided the foundations for a campaign that is all of a sudden looking like it may prove to be one of significant success. Yet even with a treatment room that is starting to resemble the one in M*A*S*H, there is a feeling more tears have been shed for the man than the player.

In the Sunday Times, Duncan Castles wrote: "Sources close to manager Jose Mourinho have indicated that the physical damage raises fears that the 35-year-old will have to retire from all football."

If the final act of Ibrahimovic's career proves to be a UEFA Europa League game, it will be an unbefitting curtain call.

Bowing out on a Thursday would be tragic, even if he has said of Europe's bridesmaid competition, per Tom Farmery of MailOnline): "The Europa League became the Champions League [when] I put my foot there."

If United get there, signing off in Stockholm, the destination of the final—where there is going to a statue cast of Sweden's favourite son—would have been so much more apt. 

To be fair to United supporters, this "the King is dead—long live the King" sentiment is not born from revisionism. For four seasons, since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement, United have played far too slowly. If they have had any tempo, it has tended to be of the stoned variety.

In any side he plays, Ibrahimovic, through a mix of force of personality and a goalscoring record in the modern game that is bettered only by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, becomes the sun around whom everyone else orbits. A 35-year-old target man, however elegant, brings with him certain limitations. As the revered American psychologist Abraham Maslow once put it: "I suppose it is tempting, if the tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

Even if this season proves to be his first and last at Old Trafford, he will be remembered with a heavy reverence. United's first reliable goalscorer since Robin van Persie has left his indomitable footprint on a league Little England Brexiters were convinced he would never conquer in his mid-30s.

The 17 Premier League goals he has scored this season is one more than Martial, Rashford, Wayne Rooney and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have managed between them. Across all competitions, he has 28. That's a mammoth 18 better than his nearest teammates, with Juan Mata, Mkhitaryan and Rashford all tied on 10 apiece.

Ibrahimovic probably imagined United, maybe even Manchester, would in his absence start to resemble the post-apocalyptic, dystopian landscape portrayed in Cormac McCarthy's magnum opus, The Road. Think stray cats the size of dogs having taken over Lou Macari's Fish & Chips outside Old Trafford. Poor Lou, long since eaten.

Such is his bond with the striker, Mourinho would have been tempted to rush home to his wife and kids after the Anderlecht game and instruct them to pack essentials into a shopping cart before taking them to a secret underground bunker, where they'd be able to watch Zlatan goals on a loop.

Instead, United have played some of their best football of the season without him. April 16's defeat of Chelsea, with Ibrahimovic on the bench, was Mourinho's first signature performance as Manchester United manager.

The 2-0 win over Burnley at Turf Moor on Sunday barely required them to take the handbrake off, let alone work through the gears. On first inspection, it was nothing out of the ordinary. That's kind of the point. Winning easily was how they used to do it.

Mourinho named a United side with eight changes from the Anderlecht game, which three days earlier had gone to extra time. Let us not forget that Burnley have a better record this season at Turf Moor than United do at Old Trafford. Of the 36 points Burnley have won this campaign, 32 have come at home. No Premier League side has won so comfortably there all term.

The result extended United's unbeaten run in the Premier League to 23 matches—the best a top-flight side has managed in six years. Many of those games were wars of attrition, servings of gruel to a fanbase reared on caviar. In the past two league games, although still rough around the edges, they have at least been young, fun and full of pace. Exuberance can be contagious.

United's players warmed up wearing tracksuits emblazoned with Ibrahimovic's name—and Marcos Rojo's, who also suffered a season-ending cruciate-ligament injury against Anderlecht. It's the type of trite bordering on mawkish gesture that is mercilessly mocked by rival supporters on social media, but in the deep well of ills that afflict the modern game, showing support for injured team-mates seems an odd thing to get steamed up about.

Also a little odd is how Mourinho was praised for managing Rashford's game time responsibly but has largely avoided recriminations for flogging Ibrahimovic in a manner that would have brought about prosecution from the RSPCA were he a horse. As a man who has been both 19 and 35, I can safely say without any doubt that physical exertion needs more managing the closer you get to 40.

Prior to being rested for the Chelsea game, Mourinho had played him in every single minute he was available for in the Premier League. It's as though he had worked out how much his striker was earning per minute and arrived at the conclusion he wanted his money's worth. Of United's squad, only Paul Pogba and David De Gea have played more than Ibrahimovic's 2,473 minutes of Premier League football.

On Sunday, Martial had a rare opportunity to demonstrate Rashford is not the only fleet-footed frontman at Mourinho's disposal capable of leading the line. He did so with his manager's warning ringing in his ears.

"Marcus Rashford, even without scoring goals, even with being since September without a goal in the Premier League, was always a player I trusted, I played, I supported because he was always coming in my direction, in the direction I want from a player and what I want as a Manchester United player," Mourinho said on Wednesday, per the Daniel Taylor of the Guardian.

He continued: "Do I think Anthony is a player with great potential? Yes, I think. Do I think he can play successfully for me? Yes I think. But he needs to give me things that I like."

Before the game, Gary Neville added on commentary duty for Sky Sports: "His work rate isn't good enough. Jose alluded to that in the week, and it was good to hear."

The beleaguered forward gave both of them plenty they will have liked. Mourinho will probably count Martial as another who has benefitted from a tough-love policy that has to varying degrees also been dished out to Luke Shaw, Jesse Lingard, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Mkhitaryan, Rooney, Rashford, Fred the Red, Usain Bolt, Ian McShane, Mick Hucknall et al. this season.

Others would argue playing him in his preferred position, centre-forward, may have had more to do with it. This was the first time he has played at the point of United's attack since the 4-0 win over Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup at the end of January. Even then, he was shifted out to the wing at half-time.

Whether getting the best out of Martial with six Premier League matches remaining should be a tick or blot on Mourinho's copybook is open to interpretation.

"He has to understand what we need from him, but it's not just for us but it's also for him," Mourinho said in his post-match chat with Sky Sports. "If he wants to become a very special player—he can do that—then he has to go in a certain direction, and today he showed this attitude and appetite. We are happy because we have a new player until the end of the season."

With a boxer's physique and disco dancer's feet, Martial has the lot. Both helped with scoring a beguiling opening goal. It was the type of breakaway effort Manchester United don't score anymore. Except they have, twice in as many Premier League matches when Ibrahimovic wasn't on the pitch. Both games were won 2-0, with Chelsea and Burnley failing to muster a shot on target between them.

Even Ibrahimovic would have to concede, at least to himself, United have looked more dynamic, pacier and generally more entertaining when he has had a watching brief. Either that or he'd show his detractors a rerun of the EFL Cup final—or any of his 28 goals. Ahem.

Still, Martial deserves his moment. It's been a longtime coming. After Rooney's clearance somewhat fortuitously found him still deep in United's half, the Frenchman deftly nicked the ball between Joey Barton's legs and set in place the most mismatched of foot races.

On the day of the London Marathon, Martial resembled Haile Gebrselassie as he effortlessly glided across the turf. Barton, in pursuit, looked more like he should have been dressed as the back end of a pony, shaking a bucket. An 80-yard one-two with Ander Herrera, which saw United sweep from one end to the field to the other in 10 seconds, concluded in the most satisfactory of fashions via the neatest of finishes. It was a first goal for Martial since early February.

In the corresponding fixture at Old Trafford, a faultless Tom Heaton made 11 saves in a goalless draw. That Martial's goal was United's 43rd shot over the two games somehow seemed to sum up their season as a whole.

Rooney's 251st goal for United is unlikely to be one he tells the grandkids about, but nonetheless, a first strike since his record-breaking effort against Stoke City in January was just as popular as Martial's. His celebration to mark a scruffy, angled stab for goal that only just made it over the line was totally disproportionate and all the sweeter for it.

Even in his twilight years, Rooney's fire still burns bright, as referee Anthony Taylor will attest. And he retains a goalscorer's knack for being in the right place at the right time.

With as many as nine games left in United's season, there may just be one more special moment for Rooney before he surely bids farewell to the club over the summer. 

The United captain will have watched Martial's goal unfold from the edge of his team's box and likely reminisced about a time when his own body would allow him to play with such athleticism. The way Martial wrestled past Barton will have impressed his manager more than the goal itself—as will his match-high 73 sprints, per Sky Sports Statto. Showing an appetite to battle, this was Martial doing a fine impersonation of Rashford.

Rashford's link-up play with Lingard against Chelsea evoked excitable comparisons with Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. It might not be so fanciful should Mourinho ever acquiesce with the growing number who hanker after a Martial-Rashford partnership through the middle. The vogue may be for false nines, but United have a pair of proper ones that, in tandem and if they clicked, could be gloriously devastating.

Space in behind opposition defences is now attacked. When the ball is lofted into these areas, Martial and Rashford are like dogs chasing a stick. When Ibrahimovic plays, he tends to look back at those responsible for such passes with a look that says, "you kicked it—you f--king chase it." Without runners, playing the ball to the feet of a striker with his back to goal rarely equates to the type of cavalier football United have in their DNA.

Martial's 25th goal in Manchester United colours cost his club a further £8.5 million payment to AS Monaco as part of the terms of his move from the principality club in 2015. It will be cheap at half the price if it helps secure United a UEFA Champions League place via a top-four finish, which suddenly looks more than feasible.

Martial's overall fee, with triggered add-ons, could rise to as much as £58 million. For all the promise, he still has plenty to do to prove value for money.

United head into Thursday's derby with Manchester City just a point behind their neighbours. It's now three consecutive wins in all competitions for United, while in the Premier League, they have taken maximum points from their past four away games.

City's defeat to Arsenal in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final means the best-case scenario for them this season would be a top-four place. Mourinho could end the campaign having won two trophies and above City in the table—not that outdoing Pep Guardiola will be much of a motivating factor for Mourinho. Nothing is ever personal with the Portuguese.

To do that, he'll likely need both Martial and Rashford to step up to the plate.

It was only at the beginning of March when pundit Jamie Carragher launched a scathing polemic in the direction of the pair of them on Sky Sports News (h/t Chris Davie of Metro):

There's talk of [Antoine] Griezmann coming in, but Martial was a lot of money. Rashford, certainly was last year the wonderkid, and I think he'll be a fantastic player. 

It is strange that they are having these major problems, without Zlatan, that personality, that presence, I think it's a bit embarrassing for those players who are playing that they feel they need a 35-year-old centre-forward.

Maybe they don't.

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