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

Scott Challinor

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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.

23 year old from Stoke-on-Trent. Avid Port Vale fan. Also follow Derby County & OGC Nice closely. BA Hons Modern Languages Graduate (University of Oxford). My prior experience in Sports Journalism comes from Volleyball & Floorball, having worked on major tournaments with the CEV, FIVB, & IFF. Have been contributing pieces to The Boot Room since 2016. Views are my own.

Manchester United

“Imagine thinking Phil Jones is better”: Newcastle fans react to Jamaal Lascelles omission

Newcastle fans can’t believe Jamaal Lascelles is not going to the World Cup this summer.

Max Cohen

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Jamaal Lascelles
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Chelsea narrowly defeated Manchester United in Saturday’s FA Cup Final, thanks to Eden Hazard’s first-half penalty.

United centre-half Phil Jones conceded the spot-kick, felling the Belgian in the box and drawing the ire of Twitter in the process.

Newcastle United supporters were baffled at Jones’ poor cup final performance and criticised England manager Gareth Southgate for selecting the 26-year-old defender ahead of Jamaal Lascelles in the World Cup squad.

Against Chelsea, Jones made headlines for his high-profile mistake 20 minutes into the match.

The defender was caught flat-footed just inside his own half when Cesc Fabregas played a lofted ball in the direction of Eden Hazard.

The Belgian’s first touch was excellent and left Jones for dead, putting the Englishman on the wrong side of the ball.

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Hazard then cut back across Jones, before the defender lunged into an ill-timed challenge that got nowhere near the ball.

In a cup final of such importance, mistakes such as Jones’ can prove immensely costly. And as United lost the match by the solitary goal, the centre-back’s error was devastating.

And the Manchester United defender’s poor showing incensed English supporters, who were furious at his inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s 23-man team.

In particular, Newcastle United fans felt aggrieved that Jones was selected in front of their captain Jamaal Lascelles.

Lascelles has been superb all season for the Magpies, marshaling the Newcastle defence while leading the club to an impressive tenth-placed finish.

Unlike Jones, who has been an inconsistent feature in United’s side, Lascelles featured in 33 Premier League matches this season – ten more than the United defender.

The Newcastle United faithful expressed their discontent at the England manager’s defensive team selections, arguing Lascelles would have proved a far more effective option in Russia.

And as one intrepid Twitter user noted, when Newcastle United played host to Chelsea just one week ago, Lascelles kept Hazard in check and held the Blues scoreless. Jones, on the other hand, capitulated in the face of the Belgian’s skills.

England face Belgium on 28 June in their final group stage match; Newcastle and Three Lions fans alike will be praying Phil Jones does not feature.

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Manchester United

Luke Shaw must seek Mauricio Pochettino reunion to revive floundering career

Max Cohen

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Luke Shaw
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The latest disappointment in a dreadful season for Luke Shaw came on Wednesday, when the Manchester United defender was left out of England’s World Cup squad.

Limited to just 11 league appearances this season, amid a falling-out with Jose Mourinho, the full-back must seek a move to Tottenham Hotspur this summer and reunite with ex-Southampton boss Mauricio Pochettino.

It is easy to forget that Shaw is just 22 years of age, as the left back burst onto the scene as a 16-year-old back in 2012.

Once considered one of the world’s finest young defenders, Shaw played in the 2014 World Cup for England and was signed by Manchester United for £30 million – the world record fee for a teenager at the time.

However, the Englishman’s time at Old Trafford has been a troubled one. Filled with injuries and managerial bust-ups, Shaw appears a shadow of his former self and is desperately short of confidence and playing time.

(Photo by Lindsey Parnaby/Getty Images)

A transfer to White Hart Lane to link up with old boss Mauricio Pochettino would be the ideal switch for the left back.

Shaw still has time on his side to revive his career, as at only 22 years old, he has many playing years in front of him.

The Argentinian would be the perfect manager to coax the best out of the fullback, due to Pochettino’s impressive knack for getting the best out of promising youngsters.

The two spent a year-and-a-half together at St. Mary’s and Shaw has since spoken glowingly about his respect and adoration for Pochettino in Guillem Balague’s book Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs:

“I do hope that I can play for him again one day. And I think he really wants me to play under him again.”

In order to save his floundering career, Shaw must leave Old Trafford and make the switch to Spurs to rekindle his relationship with Mauricio Pochettino.

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English Premier League

Four Premier League ‘flops’ that have gone on to excel in Europe

There are some exceptional former Premier League disappointments now excelling abroad.

Martyn Cooke

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Flops
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Mohammed Salah has emerged as one of the leading performers in world football this season after having an incredible debut season with Liverpool.

The 25-year-old has scored a combined total of 44 goals for club and country this campaign and was subsequently voted as both the PFA Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year.

However, it was only two years ago that Salah was being branded as a flop following a short, unsuccessful stint with Chelsea.

The Egyptian made only a handful of appearances at Stamford Bridge and had to rebuild his reputation in Italy with Fiorentina and Roma prior to emerging as one of the best players in the world this campaign.

Here, The Boot Room looks at four other Premier League flops that have rebuilt their careers in European football.

Memphis Depay

(Photo by Jeff Pachoud/Getty Images)

There was considerable excitement when Manchester United signed Dutch prodigy Memphis Depay for £31 million in the summer of 2015.

The 21-year-old had been the Eredivisie’s leading goal scorer in the previous campaign with his pace, technical ability and unpredictability helping PSV Eindhoven to a first Dutch title in almost a decade.

However, Depay failed to find his feet in England and was unable to secure regular first-team football.

His inconsistent form on the pitch was further emphasized by his reputation for being something of a flashy, egotistical playboy off it.

He was subsequently sold to Lyon for an initial fee of £16 million in January 2017 having failed to impress Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho that he was worthy of a starting role.

The Dutchman has subsequently excelled in France and has exploits have helped Lyon to qualify for the Champions League next season.

He has scored 19 times in all competitions this campaign and is one of only a handful of players who have reached double figures for both goals scored and assists this campaign.

Furthermore, now 24 years of age, Depay has also begun to mature and lose his former bad-boy image.

Andrej Kramaric

(Photo by Daniel Roland/Getty Images)

When Leicester City broke their transfer record in January 2014 to purchase Andrej Kramaric for £9 million, it was widely considered to be an excellent piece of business.

The forward had been prolific in Croatian football where he was averaging over a goal a game with Rijeka and had already secured a regular place in the international team.

All of the signs indicated that The Foxes had bought a young, prolific goal scorer.

Ultimately, Kramaric failed to replicate his previous form and had a diminutive impact at the King Power Stadium.

He started just six games for Leicester before being loaned out to Bundesliga side Hoffenheim in January 2016, mid-way through Claudio Ranieri’s title-winning season, and he made the move permanent when the campaign concluded.

Now, 26 years of age, the Croatian has rediscovered his goal scoring touch in Germany netting 30 goals across all competitions over the previous two years.

He hit a hat-trick against Hannover at the end of April to fire Hoffenheim towards Champions League qualification and was hailed as a ‘top striker’ by his team-mate Havard Nordtveit.

Paulinho

(Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

In the summer of 2013, Tottenham Hotspur broke their record transfer by purchasing midfielder Paulinho for a fee believed to be around £17 million.

Spurs had just sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid and the Brazilian was one of a number of high profile and expensive signings that the club made as they reinvested the money.

Paulinho made a solid, if not spectacular, start to life at White Hart Lane and was a regular feature in his first season, making 30 appearances in the Premier League.

However, in the summer of 2013, Mauricio Pochettino replaced Tim Sherwood as manager and the midfielder simply never featured in the Argentinian’s plans.

He made just three starts and was subsequently sold to Chinese Super League side Guangzhou Evergrande for £10 million.

It was initially thought that the Brazilian’s top flight career in Europe was over until Barcelona made the surprise move to sign him in the summer of 2017.

Paulinho has emerged as a key feature at the Nou Camp this season, making almost 50 appearances across all competitions, to help the club secure a domestic league and cup double, leaving Tottenham supporters wondering if they sold the midfielder too soon.

Iago Aspas

(Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)

Liverpool signed diminutive Spanish forward Iago Aspas in the summer of 2013 for a £7 million as Brendan Rodgers continued to remould the playing squad at Anfield.

The striker’s arrival was something of a surprise considering he was uncapped at international level and was not widely perceived as being a prolific goal scorer.

The Spaniard struggled to find his feet in the Premier League and made only a handful of appearances before returning to La Liga with Sevilla at the end of the campaign.

He scored only once, a solitary strike in the FA Cup against Oldham Athletic, and his most noticeable contribution was producing one of the worst corner kicks of all time against Chelsea.

However, Aspas is now flourishing with hometown club Celta Vigo and is regarding as one of the most prolific strikers in La Liga.

He has scored 21 goals across all competitions this season in 35 appearances and is the leading Spanish goalscorer across all of Europe’s top flight leagues.

He has a genuine chance of leading Spain’s forward line this summer at the World Cup.

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