Nov 23, 2017
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What Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s return for Manchester United means for Romelu Lukaku

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On Saturday evening, with 76 minutes played between Manchester United and Newcastle United, a huge roar erupted from the Old Trafford crowd. However, the reaction did not occur because of a goal or a moment of magic on the pitch, but rather in response to Zlatan Ibrahimovic striding out of the dugout prior to being introduced as a late substitute.

The reaction of the Old Trafford faithful exemplified that the Swedish striker remains one of the most enthralling figures in modern football and was a heart-warming reminder that his exploits in his debut season with Manchester United had not been forgotten.

Ibrahimovic was making his first appearance in almost seven months after he had suffered a severe knee ligament injury in a Europa League tie back in April.

The fact that the 36-year-old has been able to recover from such a setback in such a short period of time is astonishing and his athletic scissor kick in the closing moments of Saturday’s contest, which was tipped wide of the post by Rob Elliot, suggested that the Swede is physically back to his best.

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However, Ibrahimovic’s return poses Jose Mourinho some difficult questions and also increases the pressure on Manchester United’s current forward line, including record signing Romelu Lukaku.

A nice problem to have

When Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his return on Saturday evening it was perhaps symbolic that the Swede’s introduction resulted in Romelu Lukaku being forced to play on the left of a front three.

It will have been a purposeful reminder to Manchester United’s top goal scorer that he is no longer the only striker who will be vying to spearhead Jose Mourinho’s attack.

In truth, Lukaku has made a positive start to his career at Old Trafford, scoring 12 goals in all competitions so far this season.

However, for the most part, the Belgian has been Manchester United’s main man and has been guaranteed a spot in Mourinho’s starting line-up regardless of form, fitness or opposition in the opening months of the campaign.

This has been exemplified in recent weeks where Lukaku received criticism from some quarters after going seven games without finding the back of the net and his manager’s unwavering faith and continuous selection.

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Ibrahimovic’s return changes the picture and Lukaku suddenly has a genuine world-class player breathing down his neck and competing for the same position in Manchester United’s starting eleven.

If the Belgian was to go another seven games without scoring, then it is very likely that he would be swiftly replaced by the Swede.

Lukaku ended his goal draught at the weekend, thumping his close range striker beyond Rob Elliot in the Newcastle United net with apparent fury, but it remains to be seen what impact Ibrahimovic’s return will have.

The immediate test will be of the Belgian’s character – how will he perform under the pressure of the Swede breathing down his neck? It may be that it pushes Lukaku to perform better than ever before, or it could lead to a crisis of confidence.

Ibrahimovic’s return means that Manchester United suddenly have an abundance of attacking options at their disposal and the competition for places will certainly be seen as a positive by Mourinho.

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He suddenly has two world-class striker’s competing for a place in his starting eleven and he will be hoping that a friendly rivalry between the pair will help to enhance their performances on the pitch.

Who to start: Romelu Lukaku or Zlatan Ibramhimovic? It is a certainly a nice problem for Mourinho to have.

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Manchester United
Martyn Cooke

Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.