Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Manchester United: Where does he fit in?

by Sam Peoples

Infinite Combinations, three key systems and Zlatan in a front three (or four).

Manchester United: The Movie. A supporting cast of Ashley Young, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, Memphis, Wayne Rooney, Adnan Januzaj, Ander Herrera, Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and possibly more to follow. The leading man? Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

He may be soon to turn 35-years-old, yet after United’s Twitter feed announced the self-confident Swede ‘broke #mufc power records in tests during his medical’, he is still clearly in top physical condition to tear-apart any Premier League defence.

The only questions that remain are: which system will he flourish in and who should feed the ego?

Mourinho’s previous spells in the Premier League suggest Zlatan will most likely find himself operating as the focal point of a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 formation. Flanked by the likes of Lucas Moura, Angel Di Maria and Edison Cavani, Zlatan recorded his best goal scoring season to date in a 4-3-3 under former red Laurent Blanc at Paris Saint-Germain.
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Mourinho has the personnel at United to replicate such a system, with the speed, trickery and creativity of Martial, Rashford and Mkhitaryan offering similar options to those at Blanc’s disposal.

Although this would be my personal choice, along with a midfield three of Herrera, Schneiderlin and (*cough* Pogba *cough*) Mkhitaryan, there is one very obvious drawback to this system. United are currently overwhelmed with potential number tens, arguably including Zlatan himself. One possible answer to this dilemma is the re-introduction of the diamond, which got the occasional airing under both Sir Alex Ferguson and Louis Van Gaal to varying degrees of success.

Prior to a Champions League knockout game against United in 2009, Mourinho declared that: “We won’t change our style of play, it will be 4-4-2 with a diamond formation in midfield and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Adriano in attack”.

Implementing the same style of play at United would present Mourinho with an abundance of options. For Adriano, read Rashford, Martial or perhaps even Rooney, although to play a front two as devout of pace as Rooney and Ibrahimovic would surely be tactical suicide.
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In behind the front two, Mourinho really does have the world at his feet, with the most likely option being the, all-but-confirmed, new arrival Mkhitaryan, although if Mourinho does decide to hang on to fan-favourite Mata, the Spaniard’s cute through balls would supply Ibrahimovic with no end of chances.

Alternatively, and perhaps most interestingly of any potential set-up, the diamond allows for the deployment of Ibrahimovic in the number ten role, with the electric speed of Martial and Rashford ahead of him. As a man who can score from anywhere in any situation, Zlatan would surely be just as devastating from range as he would be in a front two, whilst he finished only second behind Angel Di Maria in Ligue 1 in terms of assists.

The main concern regarding the use of a diamond system is the increased difficulty in creating a sense of width, with the full-backs being asked to provide as much wide-attacking support as possible. Considering Mourinho’s apparent, although not exclusive, preference for defensive full-backs, such as Branislav Ivanović and César Azpilicueta, in addition to the opposition’s tendency to sit deep against United, a narrow system could see United fans experiencing the perils of tedious football for yet another season.

Nobody wants to watch players trying to thread passes through a ten-man defence whilst leaving themselves open to the sucker punch on the counter attack. Sometimes, a quality ball whipped into the box is the only solution.

And so, it would seem that a 4-2-3-1 formation would allow for many of the advantages described above whilst negating many of the disadvantages. In the upcoming season, when we find ourselves entering Fergie Time with the scores level, it may just be that one beautifully floated ball from out-wide is powered into the back of the net by the imposing Swedish superstar to clinch us all three points and, who knows, maybe even a title.
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A 4-2-3-1 creates space to incorporate a wide-threat and a number ten, whilst permitting Zlatan to be fed by a Mkhitaryan or Mata, or feed a Rashford or Martial. It is also a system that Mourinho has dabbled with on numerous occasions in the past and just may be our ticket to winning back our rightful place as the Pride of all Europe and the undoubted Cock of the North.

One final note. If this is the route Mourinho heads down as he did in his last stint at Chelsea, then I doubt I’d be the only United fan to plead, please Jose, please do not play two defensive midfielders.

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