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Zlatan Ibrahimović is still too good to be a mere back-up

Zlatan didn’t re-sign with United to sit on the bench. So what will the team look like when he returns from injury?

Manchester United v Southampton - EFL Cup Final Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Earlier this week, Zack Brisson made the case for Zlatan Ibrahimović being best suited as primarily an option off the bench. Today, Colin Damms argues that Ibrahimović has much more to offer.

The re-signing of Zlatan Ibrahimović last week was welcome news as his return further strengthens an already prolific strike force. But how will Ibrahimović fit into a team that now has Romelu Lukaku leading the line? And when can United fans even expect him to return from injury?

Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial are all capable of occupying the striker role for Manchester United in the meantime, and if their respective starts to the season are evidence of what is to come they could be enough to put United in prime position to challenge for the Premier League title. In addition, Lukaku is surely the man for the future as well as the present considering what the club paid for him. He will surely keep his place in the team when Ibrahimović returns to fitness, barring injury or loss of form.

Returning from a severe knee injury at the age of 36 is hardly a simple task, but by all reports Ibrahimović is continuing to defy Father Time by recovering at an excellent pace. Certainly the club would not have invested in him for another year had he not been. What this means is that Ibrahimović could be back in late December or early January, when United will face a crucial run of games in the Premier League, FA Cup, and the EFL Cup should United defend their title that far into the season. Not to mention the UEFA Champions League knockout stage should United qualify beyond the group stage.

Simply put, Zlatan’s return could not come at a better time.

Ibrahimović is undoubtedly a tantalizing option off the bench, but his experience is invaluable in big games, and in particular cup matches and the Champions League, but perhaps even more interesting is the prospect of Ibrahimović and Lukaku paired together.

During the 2016-17 Premier League campaign United found their talisman in Zlatan Ibrahimović, but it still wasn’t enough to challenge for the title or even finish in the top 4. Which is why José Mourinho must consider his options and properly utilize both of his fearsome striking options.

Ibrahimović could easily fit into the same position as Lukaku as another strike option, and will certainly be used as an alternative to give Lukaku some rest, but another option could be pairing the two giant strikers. The 4-4-2 is a rarely used formation in the Premier League these days, partly thanks to the success of the style Mourinho introduced at Chelsea in 2004, but Ibrahimović could be more than a threat off the bench and in Cup games through this classic formation.

With Pogba and Matić in the center of midfield United have played with much more freedom going forward. There is no longer as much panic defending against counter attacks or in winning back possession. In a 4-4-2 they would play similar roles with Pogba venturing forward more often, however one of Mkhitaryan, Mata, and Rashford/Martial would have to make way. The more likely of those coming out would be Mata or Mkhitaryan with one coming on for the other later in the match.

The absence of someone in the number 10 role behind the striker could easily be filled by Ibrahimović coming back to the ball in possession as he is excellent on the ball for someone of his size and position, and a creative back-to-goal player. This could further open up opposing defenses through the skill and vision of Pogba and Ibrahimović in the center of the pitch, and add another physically dominant presence to United’s attack, which will make them even more dangerous for set piece opportunities. Just imagine being a center back having to worry about marking both Lukaku (6’3) or Ibrahimović (6’5).

In addition to their physical domination, Lukaku and Ibrahimović were 2 of the most prolific strikers in the Premier League last season, finishing 2nd and 7th in the golden boot race respectively. Ibrahimović may have even scored more had he not gone down injured. Creating and scoring goals is simply easier when they are on the pitch. So why not play both if given the opportunity?

Mourinho will ultimately decide how to properly utilize Ibrahimović upon his return to the first team. Pairing him up top with Lukaku may even be an idea already swirling in his head. Regardless, the option is a realistic one, and will strike fear into the hearts of Premier League defenders come December.

Winter is coming, and with it the return of Zlatan Ibrahimović.