Zlatan Ibrahimovic's errors suggest veteran striker is urgently in need of a break
Perhaps Zlatan Ibrahimovic had been watching Sky Sports in the dressing room at half-time. Perhaps Jamie Carragher’s withering assessment was all the motivation the Manchester United forward needed to rise, briefly but resolutely and ultimately decisively, from his slumber. “I don’t think he has had a worse 45 minutes in his career,” the former Liverpool defender said of the Swede’s first-half display. Carragher might not even have been exaggerating.
On another day, Ibrahimovic could have had two legs tied together and made a better fist of things after fumbling through proceedings. On another day, too, he might not have made it out for the second period. Jose Mourinho, though, had probably cast one eye at the slim pickings on his substitutes’ bench, where there was still no place astonishingly for poor Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and thought it would be worth giving Ibrahimovic a little longer to redeem himself. He will be pleased he did.
Manchester City’s “problems” are relative compared with United’s and were reflected in the team sheets, Guardiola making nine changes to Mourinho’s four from the weekend, with the Catalan opting to give a couple of kids – the very capable Aleíx Garcia and Pablo Maffeo it must be said - a run-out.
If City could just about afford to lose this, United really couldn’t and the irony after a first half that had done little to dispel the theory that Ibrahimovic requires dropping – or resting depending on your point of view – is that the 35-year-old was the one who helped to swing the momentum his team’s way.
Showing strength and experience to roll Nicolas Otamendi and earn referee Mike Dean’s leniency in the process, Ibrahimovic played a stabbed pass into the penalty area, Ander Herrera and Fernando tangled, and a grateful Juan Mata was there to slot the ball into the bottom corner. On a night very low in quality in the main, it was a significant enough contribution to help earn Mourinho a welcome reprieve at a time when the pressure has been building on the Portuguese and, in the process, push the spotlight back in the direction of his rival Guardiola, who has now gone six games without a win for the first time in his managerial career.
And yet, there seems to be a wider debate to be had around Ibrahimovic and whether he requires more careful management than he has been getting from his manager. Mourinho suggested afterwards that the 4-0 drubbing at Chelsea on Sunday had forced him to play a stronger side last night than he wanted to so perhaps in other circumstances Ibrahimovic may have sat this one out.
Mourinho will also point to Ibrahimovic’s assist as evidence of his enduring value. But Ibrahimovic’s performance on the whole smacked of a player who, for all his nous, looks in need of a break. This was his 10th game in less than seven weeks, plenty of them played at a pace he will seldom have encountered in Ligue 1 with Paris St-Germain. In recent weeks, he has looked his age and the overhit passes, the cheap concession of possession, the hapless miscontrols that drew that stark appraisal from Carragher were, while embarrassing for a player of his gifts, also a consequence of weary legs, of a tired mind, of a player who is at risk of being flogged.
It did not start well for Ibrahimovic and, by the interval, a second half renaissance seemed wishful. The first 18 minutes had passed him by when, afforded the opportunity to release Rashford down the left, he crashed his pass out for a City goal-kick. Soon after, Mourinho was letting off one huge shrug of the shoulders when Ibrahimovic failed to control a simple pass and there was worse to follow when he gifted the ball straight to Nolito to widespread groans.
To his credit, lesser men might have crumbled. Not Ibrahimovic. His intervention for the goal was crucial. But even after that he had a chance to put the game to bed but entirely missed Marcus Rashford’s cross from six yards out when any meaningful touch would probably have resulted in a goal. It would not come back to haunt him but Ibrahimovic’s missed chances have proven costly in the past three Premier League games against Stoke City, Liverpool and Chelsea. Rashford was characteristically game here, full of cunning and running and United’s brightest attacking outlet on the flanks. But that does not mean Mourinho could or should keep pushing the England striker out wide, especially at a time when there is evidence to suggest Ibrahimovic could do with a breather.