Zlatan Ibrahimović provided Manchester United 28 reasons to cheer before a serious knee injury put an end to his season and, most likely, calendar year. The omnipresent Swede was unnervingly quiet and withdrawn just before kick-off at Old Trafford against Anderlecht on Thursday, and didn’t improve much during the first half. Almost like he knew what was coming. An opportunity has presented itself to United’s remaining forwards, of which they have two who might fancy slipping into his boots and adding some go-faster stripes.
Marcus Rashford is the obvious candidate. At 19, it’s frankly embarrassing for the rest of us and deserves its own paragraph.
Anthony Martial, it feels wonderful to write, is now very much the other. It was not a surprise to see Martial included in the starting eleven on Sunday at Turf Moor given the options after and exertions of others during midweek, but everyone assumed it would be out wide as usual. As with Rashford, whether Martial is better suited wide or central was often debated and that will no doubt be rekindled with one raw move, touch and never-missing finish from the Frenchman. A brilliant goal that vindicated José Mourinho’s canny deployment and reminded us of the player promised in his debut season.
It’s difficult to say with absolute certainty, even with hindsight, whether certain managerial decisions are what they seem, often because what they could seem can be fitted according to your already established wish, and that there is more ongoing affecting selections which we are simply not privy to. However, Mourinho started being careful with Rashford well before possibly being spooked by serious injuries to a couple of key players and, together with leading the line away against Chelsea in the league before Ibrahimović got injured, it suggests that was always the plan to some extent. Rashford was substituted early while United precariously led 1-0 away to Anderlecht in the first leg, with Chelsea in mind three days later – immediately that didn’t pay off but over the course of the three games in a week, it did.
Leaving United’s next best source of goals on the bench at Burnley was understandable, but the arrangement of his front three was arguably Mourinho's finest bit of steering this season. Mourinho gambled on Martial responding positively chucked in at centre-forward, with Wayne Rooney more effective out of the way and the curiously-maligned, sprightly Jesse Lingard on the other side. If that went wrong it would be difficult to recover even in such a charitable season, but the reward’s a significant shift in dynamic for Thursday’s clash away at City – United are amongst it, unfathomably, and they also appear to have a plan.
You could argue that Mourinho should have relied on Ibrahimović on fewer occasions; that Martial should have showed more of his obvious talent; that Rashford should have played less on the wings and more through the middle. You could argue that Mourinho has stumbled upon a fast front three because of circumstance. That would be to entirely miss the point of April and May where timing, forethought, flexibility and conviction are all hopefully tested. Martial, supposedly in last chance territory, as centre-forward in a must-win game against a team with a great home record showed a confident understanding of Mourinho's patchwork post-FergusonMoyesVanGaal team, including the way United later controlled the game.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Lingard, Martial and Rashford could all comfortably fit in the same side were it not for Paul Pogba who flourishes when the composition is more fluid. Pogba is the priority and 4-3-3, as Mourinho pointed out, is tougher on the central striker as there is no support from a no.10. In any case, one or more of the four forwards are likely to miss out at any one time. All four are being played into form, and Rooney is even looking to contribute. Based on the previous selections (Rashford and Mkhitaryan), substitutes (Lingard and Martial) and public geeing (Mkhitaryan in the league and that game early on at home to City hanging over his head still/Martial for everything), it’s anyone’s guess who will feature on Thursday against their neighbours.
Zlatan Ibrahimović brought attitude, goals and fortitude to United. Out of everyone, Marcus Rashford looks to have benefitted most, recently providing two of the biggest cheers of the season so far – his opener at Chelsea in a bullying shift and the beautiful, stress-relieving winner in extra-time at home to Anderlecht four days later. The king is dead, long live the kid.