Plans are reportedly afoot for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to stay at Manchester United for at least another season with his focus said to be on becoming a champion in a fourth major European league after success in Italy, Spain and France.
If Jose Mourinho knows anything about that – however – he’s pretending he doesn’t.
“I don’t have news, for the next two days I don’t want news,” he said in regard to Swedish reports of a new one-year agreement.
It would take a monumental improvement for United to turn their pursuit of a place in the top four into a title challenge within a year but that is the scale of Zlatan’s single-minded ambition.
Whether or not a new deal would suit the long-term good of Manchester United – however – is to be questioned. Zlatan will turn 36 not long after the season begins; not many title-winning teams in any of those countries have featured a starting striker as superannuated as that. If United accede to his demands then they could be locking themselves in to more self-inflicted Zlatan-dependence.
Against Middlesbrough on Sunday, United played only their second 90 minutes of the Premier League season without Ibrahimovic in the line-up but proved they can do it without him.
The only other occasion he was left out – against Arsenal in November – was due to suspension as it was here. Mourinho places his former Inter favourite above all others when it comes to his selection and that is plainly to the detriment of Marcus Rashford.
The home-grown forward did feature for the full 90 against Middlesbrough. However, these were exceptional circumstances however as United were very much short of options all over the pitch given their exertions in what had been up to last week four competitions.
Marcos Rojo and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were fit enough only for the bench. Daley Blind wasn’t here and Ander Herrera was also suspended. There has been zero evidence so far this season of Mourinho rotating Ibrahimovic and so Rashford would probably not have played had the striker not violently lashed out in vengeance at Tyrone Mings of Bournemouth.
As a matter of fact, it suited both Mourinho and Rashford on the day. United are tired, the manager set his team up to conserve whatever energy was left in the tank. Mourinho would have preferred to replace either Michael Carrick or Marouane Fellaini in midfield late on but had no option but to leave them on.
“No Zlatan, no Pogba, no Mkhitaryan, we lost people that want to control the game by having the ball,” Mourinho said.
“We played differently. We gave more of the ball to the opponent. We dropped the line a little bit back, we attacked the spaces.”
United sat so deep as to invite criticism of their set-up by supporters on social media but it left them perfectly set up to gallop towards Middlesbrough’s goal on the break. Jesse Lingard benefited on one such occasion with the finely-placed shot which put his team out of sight.
And Rashford – to his credit - led the line well and stretched the opposition back line in a way that Zlatan can’t or won’t do. He’s got much more acceleration than Ibrahimovic and has a refreshing tendency to carry the ball at speed towards goal.
“Marcus is a completely different player than Zlatan and we have to try to adapt to his qualities,” was the manager’s assessment.
What has undoubtedly been stunted – however – through Mourinho’s indulgence of Zlatan is Rashford’s confidence in his own finishing.
He was twice one-on-one with Victor Valdes at the Riverside Stadium only to be thwarted. The first one in particular was from the type of position he made his trademark last season. The mind harked back to his derby goal against City when he blew Martin Demichelis away before finishing handily and instinctively.
Being unable to convert winnable chances has taken a toll.
“Rashford is in trouble to score a goal,” Mourinho admitted. “It’s really difficult to score a goal for him.”
“[But] for me, he played phenomenal. Goals will arrive, no problem at all.”
His development over the course of the last year has been such that you expect only one outcome every time he gets in. He was surly after missing his chances on Sunday – punching his hands together and sulking in the goal mouth after Valdes denied him a second time – and no doubt mindful that every chance he misses means his manager is less likely to swap Zlatan out on a regular basis.
Rashford’s numbers are way down on last season. Under Louis van Gaal there were 11 league starts and five league goals coming at a rate of one every 172 minutes. His shooting accuracy was at 89 per cent while he was converting 55 per cent of the chances coming his way. This term though things are different.
He has played 22 league games in all and has to date started 11 times. He’s only scored three league goals and he averages only one goal in every 385 minutes played. His shooting accuracy has plummeted to 57 per cent while his shot conversion rate is down to 14 per cent.
Too many of his minutes have come far from the opposition goal mouth on the wings either side of Ibra and there is no question that Rashford is suffering a crisis of confidence in front of goal. The only thing that will solve that is more patience; it’s time to nurture him through what is the first slump of a career that promises untold riches.
There was enough in Rashford’s game against Boro to suggest that he is capable of carrying expectations on a more regular basis. His interplay with Juan Mata and Lingard was fluent. His mobility allows more interchangeability in the United attack and often it was unclear where the supporting attackers would pop up next.
“His movement is top class,” Mourinho said. “His dynamic is second to no one; so intelligent, so sharp, the first touch to put the ball in the best positions to attack the space, to attack the goal.”
He has the confidence to demand of his suppliers exactly where he wants the ball put. That electric pace can carry him past the offside trap in a way that Zlatan has long since ceased.
He’s not been there long but it is already important for United to look beyond the Zlatan era. This win should be seen as a glimpse of it.
It makes little sense to warp Rashford’s development curve at the expense of continued reliance on the veteran until he decides to call it a day. United have never produced a striking talent like Rashford. It would be a shame to see that promise go to waste as Zlatan chases personal landmarks.