There was an impressive show of personality from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the second half of Manchester United’s supreme 4-1 win over Newcastle United, and it wasn’t just the Swede’s forcefully acrobatic bicycle kick, of the audacious type you wouldn’t really expect a player would try in his first game back after a serious injury. It was also when he came on and pretty much directed Romelu Lukaku to the wing.
There was quite the significant symbolism there. Lukaku might be United’s main scorer this season, as he finally got going again with a thumping goal that seemed to have a power that was itself a direct response to so much criticism, but there can apparently be no doubt who the main man is.
That creates a problem for Jose Mourinho – but a very, very good problem that the manager is now probably relishing.
Most immediately, it is a positive test of Lukaku’s mental strength, to see how he handles a player like Ibrahimovic breathing down his neck and who he knows the manager so admires. This is of course one of the very reasons that Mourinho brought in the Swedish legend, because he sets this kind of tone, these kind of hard standards that should notionally lead to superior results. These are the kind of battle-hewn teams that the Portuguese looks to create.
On a wider level, a team that had recently been struggling for creativity now has an abundance of options going forward, an exciting variety of potential options and angles of attack.
It is not quite at Manchester City levels, but it is the best way to keep challenging them, and should provide more excitement about that challenge.
Another ‘good’ problem that Mourinho has is in how to arrange them, how to set them up.
This is also where Ibrahimovic’s return offers more to ponder.
He wears the No 10 shirt that reflects how he could well occupy that position soon, too, but Paul Pogba’s own ebulliently productive display surely means he could be an option in that role. He wasn’t there on Saturday but there was just a greater fluidity to United’s movement because of him. It does feel like this is what the side’s attack should be built around, because of the multi-faceted effect it has on the movement of everyone else.
Even if there is of course the caveat that it was against a constrained Newcastle United and Pogba must do the same in bigger games, this was a pretty big statement on a return from injury. He just gives United that extra vision and variety and scope.
The bigger games issue is also relevant to who will play in front of Pogba, since it remains to be seen whether Mourinho will go so bold against sides that aren’t recently promoted. Putting Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Lukaku in the same team, with Pogba behind them, is something that United fans have long waited for and this game showed why.
It could almost be forgotten that Juan Mata was there, too, had it not been for some typically memorable touches… and a typically endearing attempt to refuse to indulge in one of Pogba’s celebrations.
The bottom line is that there should be excitement about what Mourinho can do up top, that this can be a side that interchanges and interacts gloriously.
It will lead to a few negatives for some – and not just opposition.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan was dropped from the squad altogether for this game and given how it followed a series of poor recent performances – even if the team lay-out meant they weren’t all his fault – it’s difficult to see when he’ll get back in, especially if the attack can keep up this form. Mata still has to work his way back into the team properly mind, and he is someone else that the option of Ibrahimovic will affect, while Ander Herrera must again show he is one of the better options to bring the best out of Pogba.
There is also now talk from within the club that the interest in Antoine Greizmann has now cooled as a result of all this, although Juventus' Pablo Dybala is now being looked at with more seriousness.
These are still all good problems to have. Mourinho just find the best possible solution to them, to keep pace with what looks right now like the best possible City.
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