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Analysing Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s domineering performance in Manchester United’s win against Sunderland

José Mourinho has endured some frustration at the start of his Manchester United career, particularly so given the unwanted tendency his side has developed of throwing away leads and failing to see out matches. But a key part of Manchester United’s return to form since has been the development of an understanding between record signing Paul Pogba and their talismanic striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

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The Swede has been involved in 14 Premier League goals since his arrival on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain, with 12 goals and two assists, more than any other Manchester United player, and he was at his potent best again on Boxing Day, combining well with Pogba and the rest of his teammates as the Red Devils picked apart David Moyes’ Sunderland side at Old Trafford, the Scot’s first return to the Theatre of Dreams since he was dismissed from the United hot-seat back in April 2014.

Both halves were dominated by United as the statistics reflected, with the Red Devils making 606 passes compared to Sunderland’s 177, yet in the first-half, Sunderland did well to keep United’s star studded side in check, and it took Ibrahimovic’s first real contribution in the game to break the Black Cats’ resistance, after their back four of Billy Jones, Lamine Koné, Papy Djilobodji and Patrick Van Aanholt were well regimented at the back in front of the excellent Jordan Pickford in goal.

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It was a moment of world-class vision and craft from the Swede however, who came inside Lamine Koné after being fed by Marcos Rojo and slipped a wonderful pass into Daley Blind, who shot low and across Pickford to net his first of the season and edge United ahead.

After making the breakthrough they had desperately needed, Sunderland’s grip on their hosts began to lessen, and Ibrahimovic almost provided another killer blow in first-half injury time. He received the ball with his back to goal, before swivelling and threading a fantastic ball in-between Jason Denayer and Papy Djilobodji which found Paul Pogba, but the Frenchman attempted to tee himself up for a volley on the turn and only sent a weak effort straight into the grateful hands of Pickford.

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By now Ibrahimovic was in the mood to make an impact, and he and United came out for the second-half with all the attacking impetus, and he almost crafted another goal when he played a delightful one-two with Pogba, knocking the ball first-time back into the Frenchman who had found a pocket of space on the edge of the Sunderland box between Denayer and Sebastian Larsson, but his effort was ultimately tame and too easy for Pickford.

Despite not testing the keeper, the Swede was proving a vital link-up man in the final third, creating space and finding teammates with incisive passes as United began to probe more fiercely around the Sunderland box, but he had his first chance to notch a strike of his own when his well-timed run in behind Djilobodji as picked out by Juan Mata’s excellent through ball, only for Ibrahimovic to flash his effort over the crossbar on 52 minutes.

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The introduction of Henrikh Mkhitaryan just beyond the hour added further punch to United’s attack, and chances were beginning to come by at a premium, and Ibrahimovic was at the heart of Sunderland’s defensive torment once more, when another incisive pass into Pogba forced Pickford into action to scramble the ball away from Mkhitaryan, who looked ready to pounce on the Frenchman’s cutback from the by-line; a move which came from Zlatan’s vision for the initial pass in behind.

Mkhitaryan and the Swede would combine soon after, with the Armenian substitute threading the ball through for Ibrahimovic who did well to stay level with Sunderland’s line, but after beating the offside trap he saw his effort beaten away by the advancing Pickford.

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Ibrahimovic was determined not to be outdone however, and with the game still at 1-0 there was a sense United needed another to kill the game. Another half chance would fall his way soon after, when Antonio Valencia did well down the right against Larsson, before putting in a cross which Ibrahimovic attempted to help on its way with a back heeled effort, but his connection was weak and Pickford was easily able to gather the ball.

The game was now ticking over into the final ten minutes, and it was then that Sunderland’s firm resistance would be broken. It was Pogba again who combined with the Swede, collecting the ball from Ndong’s poor pass, picking him out with a threaded through-ball after a driving run forward, and two-on-one with Djilobodji, Pogba’s delay in playing the pass left Zlatan with the freedom of the Old Trafford turf to pick his spot in the bottom-right corner and beat Pickford for 2-0.

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Ibrahimovic had not only been playing up the middle, but drifting off and running the channels with devastating effect to get in behind, and he supplied the ball for the finishing blow just minutes later, drifting out to the right to receive Valencia’s pass, before playing in a sumptuous cross which Mkhitaryan finished with a flourish, a superb back heeled volley finish to put United 3-0 up and put the gloss on a fine and hard earned victory.

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Two assists and his goal were the least Ibrahimovic deserved for an immense performance. He remained in the Sunderland half for the majority of the match, only involving himself in one aerial battle, which he won against Didier Ndong, and acted as a central focal point, linking play with teammates and running the channels to help bring others into the game. His passing was incisive and accurate, with 79% of them reaching their targets, and he was a danger throughout, with three shots on target to test Pickford, including his goal. He played a total of five key passes in the game to create chances, including his two wonderful assists, and late on, despite staying up front for most of the game, he tracked back for set piece situations when his team required at key times, making two key headed clearances, the first on 70 minutes with the game still at 1-0, and again in stoppage time, when Sunderland threatened again after Fabio Borini’s volley had cut the deficit to two goals.

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But Sunderland’s threat fizzled out, and United were good value for their victory. Ibrahimovic in particular, was one of their driving forces, just as he has been all season, and José Mourinho will need that to continue if his team are to secure their aim of a place in the top four, or even propel themselves back into the title race.

Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Bola Mania.

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