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The surprising importance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic

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The only player to have played every Manchester United game this season is 34 years old. Which is a bit peculiar.

Manchester United v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Pre-game press conferences are often dull affairs, amounting to little more than roll calls of the injured and not, plus a desperate attempt to find a new way to say "this game is important and we will be trying to win it". But while much of yesterday's Jose Mourinho's hack chat followed this pattern, there was an interesting nugget regarding Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Zorya Luhansk.

"Zlatan starts."

Since the season began, the only games Zlatan hasn't started are the loss against Feyenoord and the win against Northampton Town, and on both occasions he came on as a substitute. No other player has played in every game. And since that loss against Feyenoord has, in Mourinho's own words, transformed tonight's Europa League game into a "QUTOE", then it naturally follows that "Zlatan starts".

On the one hand, this is generally unsurprising, since he's been playing pretty well. Five goals in nine games is highly respectable, and though he didn't score at the weekend, he delivered a consummate line-leading performance, linking up well with Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, nearly scoring a tribute to that great Veron-Van Nistelrooy friendly goal (2:28 below), and generally hassling Leicester's . Certainly, there's no case to drop him ...

... and yet, it's something of a surprise just how important he's become, and how quickly. Because when a side picks up a 34-year-old striker on a free, you generally think along the lines of: excellent squad option, nice to have an experienced head around the place, good example for the kids, and so on. You don't think: yeah, he'll play every game and establish himself as the focal point of the team's attack.

It's possible, of course, that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is just special enough to be the exception to that rule. He's perhaps not as quick as he once was — can more committed Zlatan-watchers verify this? — but his technique is still marvellous, his finishing is still good, his footballing brain is ticking over nicely and he is, if you'll forgive a moment of fluttering swoonishness, in quite astonishingly good nick. Give him colleagues that can find him with a cross, give him slipped through balls and willing runners, and he'll be fine. At least, he has been so far.

But the alternative reading of his sudden importance is less pleasing, suggesting that Mourinho simply doesn't think United without Ibrahimovic are good enough. It's not hard to imagine why this might be: Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are both brilliant, but both young, and while the Wayne Rooney Problem doesn't need to be rehashed here, the game against Northampton certainly suggested that playing him up front isn't the solution.

All cheerfully irrelevant while Ibrahimovic stays fit and playing well, and if he can do that all season then nobody need worry. And maybe his start against Zorya Luhansk owes as much to Wayne Rooney's niggling back problem as it does Mourinho's lack of faith in the alternatives. But football squads need a certain amount of resilience baked into them, and the pessimist's squad is always half-crocked. Unless Ibrahimovic is freakishly fit enough to play every game, or freakishly lucky enough to avoid injury all season, then United, at some point, are going to have to find a way to cope without him. One of Rashford, Martial or Rooney is going to have to step up and become the main man.

And until then? Well, you heard Mourinho. Zlatan starts.