Jose Mourinho has to make Rash decision to drop Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Published 06/11/2016 | 02:30
The Premier League season had still to begin when Jose Mourinho, responding to concerns that Zlatan Ibrahimovic's summer arrival could curtail Marcus Rashford's rapid development, declared with great conviction that the 35-year-old Swede would be a "gift" for England's talented teenager.
"He is brilliant with the young boys," the Manchester United manager said of Ibrahimovic. "We couldn't find a better striker than him to give us the stability we need."
Three months on, few would probably share Mourinho's sentiments. If anything, Ibrahimovic is looking like more of a curse than a gift for Rashford and, as United go in search of only a second win in eight Premier League matches, away to Swansea City today, nothing Mourinho has said or done of late suggests calls for a new approach in attack will be answered.
Ibrahimovic has scored once in the past 11 matches as United's centre-forward. He has missed gilt-edged chances in the last four league games that have cost his team dearly. In the last three league fixtures, United have failed to score and they are losing touch with the top four.
Thursday's spineless 2-1 Europa League defeat by Fenerbahce in Istanbul, which leaves United third in Group A, threatens to lead to another route to Champions League qualification for next season being closed off.
And all the while, Rashford - the youngster who burst on to the scene in February - remains marooned out wide, "rotting on the wing" in the words of former Arsenal striker Ian Wright, seemingly at risk of burn-out and wondering if he will ever be given a run-out, let alone an extended one, in his preferred position through the middle.
Rashford's first goal this season, like the eight he scored in 18 matches for United last term, came as a centre-forward after he was introduced alongside Ibrahimovic as a 71st-minute substitute against Hull City. But for the most part he has been shunted to the flanks.
Mourinho was again offering his full support yesterday for Ibrahimovic, but he is neither scoring nor playing well and looks in chronic need of a rest, so why the insistence that he keeps leading the line when all the evidence suggests United's attack could do with an injection of the pace, energy and unpredictability that Rashford provides?
Rashford is always game but he is at his most dangerous in and around the penalty area, not tracking back to cover his full-back as he has routinely been asked to do.
In the goalless draw away to Liverpool last month, Mourinho had wanted to move Rashford centrally for Paul Pogba, but could not because the teenager was not in the physical condition to do so and had to be removed with 13 minutes left.
Look at Rashford's 'touch map' from that game and that should come as little surprise, especially for a player who has been playing at this level for only eight months. In 10 of his 14 games this season, Rashford has failed to have a shot on target. Tellingly, he is attempting less dribbles, too, despite being asked to cut in from the left or right.
"Why is Rashford playing on the wing," Wright asked this week. "He's a goalscorer with great movement who finishes, and now he's rotting on the wing."
On Monday night, United's squad attended the club's annual Unicef dinner. It was also Rashford's 19th birthday, and midfielder Juan Mata tweeted his best wishes to the "wonderkid". Yet the wonderkid has scored just once in the past seven games and, like Ibrahimovic, he looks in need of a breather. More than anything, though, he looks in need of liberation.