At one point this season Jesse Lingard was the whipping boy of many Manchester United fans. On Tuesday he was Jose Mourinho’s saviour as his two goals rescued a 2-2 draw against Burnley when the manager had earlier appeared to have sabotaged himself by selecting Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a number 10.
After the embarrassment of their Carabao Cup exit to Bristol City last Wednesday and the late concession of an equaliser to Leicester City on Saturday, the last thing Mourinho and United needed was to stumble against Sean Dyche’s side. But the United boss decided to rest the in-form Lingard in favour of the Swede despite the change it would make to the side’s approach in light of the two players’ vastly different styles.
The decision to start with Ibrahimovic in the No.10 spot backfired spectacularly. The Swede may well have the skill-set to pull off the role under normal circumstances but this was his first Premier League start in nearly nine months and, with his body still showing significant signs of wear and tear as a result of his long injury lay-off, he was unable to provide the artistry and sharpness normally demanded of the creative man playing off a main striker.
Ibrahimovic was second to most balls fed into an attacking midfield slot, and was too often found just off the shoulder of Romelu Lukaku rather than looking for space from which to dominate the offensive half of the field.
In truth he was the squarest of pegs in the roundest of holes and United’s attacking play suffered as a result. They had occasional opportunities during a nightmare first half, but other than Nick Pope’s finger-tip save from Paul Pogba’s header and Ben Mee’s goal-line clearance from Marcus Rashford the away side weren’t asked any particularly troubling questions.
At the other end United were just as loose and laboured, with shambolic defending by Marcos Rojo and particularly Lukaku allowing Ashley Barnes to poke home from Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s third-minute free-kick. Burnley’s second goal was right out of the top drawer though, Steven Defour curling home a magnificent free-kick from 30 yards which left David de Gea with absolutely no chance.
At half-time Mourinho made the only decision he could make, with Ibrahimovic withdrawn in favour of Lingard. Marcos Rojo was also replaced after somehow collecting a fifth yellow card in five league appearances this season. While the Argentine has looked more at ease than Zlatan since their simultaneous returns from identical injuries, his own lack of sharpness has clearly had a hand in him arriving at challenges later than is ideal.
With Ibrahimovic off, Lingard made an immediate impact. First he arrived in the six-yard box to turn a right-wing cross goalwards only to see Nick Pope push the effort onto the bar and away to safety. Then he found the net with a sumptuous backheel from another Ashley Young cross.
Every time Young and Luke Shaw attacked from the full-back positions United looked more dangerous, and for long periods of the second half it felt like a comeback win could be on the cards. Just as hopes began to fade with the home side still trailing and injury time beginning Lingard reacted quickest to a loose ball after a goalmouth scramble. It was his sixth goal in seven games and only underlined further the folly in selecting Ibrahimovic in his stead.
Mourinho might rightly point to the long spells of dominance in the second half which were arguably worthy of their share of the spoils but in truth United had been their own worst enemies in the first 45 minutes and were ultimately fortunate to get their point.
It is two more dropped points and a further example of just how far the rest of the league is behind Manchester City, but more than that it was a lesson for Mourinho to learn. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is far from finished, just so long as he gets the right opportunities in the right games. This was neither.