Thursday 22 August 2019

Jamie Carragher: Return of Zlatan forces Mourinho to strike balance

United manager has to keep Swede and Lukaku happy

While Zlatan Ibrahimovic (pictured) was recovering from injury, Romelu Lukaku tasted the responsibility of being Manchester United’s main man. Photo: Getty Images
While Zlatan Ibrahimovic (pictured) was recovering from injury, Romelu Lukaku tasted the responsibility of being Manchester United’s main man. Photo: Getty Images

Jamie Carragher

Everyone at Manchester United will be thrilled by the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Everyone except one man: Romelu Lukaku.

When Ibrahimovic stepped back onto the pitch last weekend the dynamic of his relationship with Lukaku was evident. Zlatan delivered the instruction to his team-mate to play wide. Lukaku obliged, the younger player obedient to the senior professional. It happened again in Basel. He will not have liked it.

Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku. Photo: Reuters
Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku. Photo: Reuters

I know what the players and Jose Mourinho will say: "Everyone is working together. The team comes first. Good players adapt and bring the best from each other. Competition for places is healthy. There will be no problems."

That will be the genuine intention and all may seem well over the next few weeks, especially as United have 12 fixtures until January 1. Everyone needs game-time.

Longer term, Lukaku will become No 1 choice by virtue of age, 35-year-old Ibrahimovic being in the final years of his career.

But I also know how players really feel when their position is threatened. Ultimately, they think about themselves. You do not get to the level of Ibrahimovic and Lukaku without being single-minded. Yes the team comes first… as long as you are in it.

Both Ibrahimovic and Lukaku want to be the main man - the centre-forward, the guy most trusted to score the winning goals in the biggest games. While Ibrahimovic was recovering from injury Lukaku tasted that responsibility. He has never gone into a week worrying whether he will be starting number nine. Now that has changed. He might say he's content playing a different role, but he won't be.

I know how Ibrahimovic felt during his rehabilitation, studiously watching Lukaku's early performances. I know what it is like being an established player identifying new threats to your place.

I had that throughout my career, Liverpool often buying players who many felt would replace me - mainly when I was still at full-back; players like Markus Babbel, John Arne Riise and Steve Finnan. They were good, but mentally I made it as tough as possible, no matter how highly they were regarded or what they cost.

I look back and believe some players could not cope with my mentality, day after day. It was too much for them - that unrelenting intensity to ensure you are selected. When I was seriously injured - I had a knee operation and a broken leg - I never feared I would not be back. Both times I returned a month early, watching the team and stating with confidence I would reclaim my place. I do not write this to be sound big-headed, just to demonstrate how far absolute belief matched with application and talent gets you.

My attitude was this: "You think you're coming here to get my place? You better earn it more than anyone else in this side."

Ibrahimovic has that look in his eye. I see it because I know it. His early return from injury says more about his personality than his brilliant quotes about 'lions not recovering like humans'. And nobody knows how Zlatan's mind works better than Mourinho.

You see the power of Ibrahimovic's personality in interviews. Standing next to Paul Pogba he is like an elder statesman with an apprentice.

Pogba - one of the most expensive players in the world - looks like he is an awe of Ibrahimovic. This is an aura few players possess. Lukaku has to overcome that, puff out his chest and remember he cost £75 million and has as much claim to leading the line.

Mourinho has to keep two big-name strikers happy, which is not easy. Look around the biggest clubs and not many have this problem - albeit it is a pleasant one for a manager.

Pep Guardiola has handled it with Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, although I suspect the Manchester City boss is ambivalent on Aguero's future - playing him when he is scoring but not concerned about leaving him out.

At other clubs you do not see two out-and-out strikers competing for one place. Which striker, other than someone who accepts being a deputy, would go to Spurs while Harry Kane is at the club? Alvaro Morata is the main man at Chelsea. If he is fit, he plays.

When Ibrahimovic was at Paris Saint-Germain, Edinson Cavani was forced to compromise, moving to the right wing. He became the central striker after the Swede left.

Having three or even four strikers in a squad is not unprecedented - United fans will argue it worked pretty well for the treble-winning squad in 1999. But everyone knew their place in the pecking order, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole the first picks while Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer deputised.

Lukaku and Ibrahimovic are number nines. They could play together against lesser teams, Zlatan dropping deeper as a number ten. But Mourinho would not do this against stronger opponents, exposing his midfield.

I am not convinced Lukaku can play wide because it demands more running, often towards your own goal to track back. That is not Lukaku's game. He would have to learn it. He has not been signed for that.

So when the biggest games come along it will be one or the other, which is where it will get trickier for Mourinho. Ibrahimovic will not be content being a substitute, especially now he is coming to the end of his career.

As he eases his way to 100 per cent fitness, the upcoming League Cup and Champions League games might satisfy him, but only to prepare for bigger tests.

Both he and Lukaku will have an eye on the Manchester City game on December 10, asking themselves who will get the manager's vote.

Mourinho will need his finest man-management skills to deal with this. I suspect that process began a few weeks ago.

Everyone was curious when, for no apparent reason, Mourinho publicly defended Lukaku following the win over Tottenham Hotspur, criticising United fans for not supporting him enough and then declaring the Belgian 'untouchable'.

Confidence There seemed no need for it, but Mourinho must have sensed murmurings and wanted to preserve or enhance Lukaku's confidence, especially in the midst of a goal drought after an excellent start to his United career.

The fact Mourinho opted against the most logical like-for-like substitution in the last two games - why not replace Lukaku with Ibrahimovic? - suggests to me Mourinho believes the younger player needs that protection.

That is why Lukaku's goal against Newcastle last weekend was his most important yet, perfectly timed given Ibrahimovic's comeback.

Given how many he has scored in his developing career, many of the questions about Lukaku's career are harsh. He is still to shake off the claim he does not score enough in the biggest games. There is work for him to do to prove beyond doubt he fits the Manchester United shirt, even though there is more to suggest he will on the basis of his first few months.

But for all the goals and all the excellent performances, there will be a symbolic moment that will demonstrate once and for all the Romelu Lukaku is established as Manchester United's main man.

That will be the day when both strikers are on the pitch, and rather than drift wide Lukaku remains the central figure.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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