During Leicester City’s remarkable title-winning campaign last term, pundits would frequently observe that the Foxes amounted to ‘more than the sum of their parts’. The notion of a strong collective beating a group of more talented individuals was reinforced this summer when Iceland knocked England out of Euro 2016. An important part of a team’s sum adding up to more than its constituent parts is the compatibility of its partnerships; in fact, ‘football is a game of partnerships’ is another stock phrase in the parlance of football punditry. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic; Xavi and Andres Iniesta; Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry.
You can fill in the blanks for yourself. More often than not, the two players complement each other; one player’s strengths will compensate for the other’s weaknesses, or their opposing styles will ensure their team has all bases covered. That is why it was intriguing to hear Zlatan Ibrahimovic describe new Manchester United teammate Wayne Rooney as his ‘perfect partner’. Jose Mourinho has already stated that Rooney will play either as a striker or as a No 10, and we know for a fact that Ibrahimovic is not going to play anywhere other than those roles. So it raises the prospect of Rooney and Ibrahimovic playing in tandem, either as a front two or as a ‘No 9’ and ‘No 10’ in a 4-2-3-1.
The first thing that springs to mind is that it is hard to imagine Ibrahimovic forming a partnership with anyone. One of the major the Swede’s major attributes is his self-sufficiency; often he has played as lone striker, doing the job of two players on his own. He has the physical stature and exemplary close control to play with his back to goal, but also the predatory instincts to score goals inside the box. Ibrahimovic is the type of player that the team adapts to, not the other way around (and whatever your thoughts on him, he has the quality and track record to justify this). He is not somebody who seeks reciprocity; there is certainly more take than give when it comes to his footballing relationships and, it has to be admitted, his team usually benefits from this approach.
The second thing that strikes you about this potential partnership is the sheer lack of pace. Rooney and Ibrahimovic would surely be one of the slowest strike partnerships in recent memory. One lost count of the occasions when commentators panned Louis Van Gaal’s United for lacking pace and penetration last season. We were told this was an abandonment of the ‘United Way’ which was all about speed, width, and counter attacking. How does Ibrahimovic, for all his undoubted quality, help that problem?
In fairness to the him, in his recent comments Ibrahimovic stated that ‘many years ago’ he had said that Rooney was the perfect partner due to the running he did for the team. This is quite revealing, and does modify his opinion slightly. The idea of a dynamic Rooney who could do Ibrahimovic’s running for him is an attractive one; but that Rooney is a thing of the past. Rooney is now the player who needs someone to do the type of ‘work’ Ibrahimovic was describing. Some United fans will argue the pair of them can evoke the type of partnership Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov had in 2010-11, when Berbatov won the golden boot and United won the league. Six years on however, does Rooney have the same power in his legs to make up for a stationary partner? It is very doubtful.
United supporters need not despair, as Mourinho could be planning to compensate for this lack of speed in central areas by playing two flyers on the wings (that certainly fits into the popular perception of the ‘United Way’). Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan would be a seriously dangerous two-pronged attack, capable of beating players with the ball at their feet and making incisive off-the-ball runs. It could be that United attack, and counterattack, predominantly from the wide areas with Rooney and Ibrahimovic providing good penalty box presence.
Two performances stand out when considering Mourinho as a manager; both came against Barcelona. One was the second leg of the 2005 Champions League last-16 tie against the Catalans with Chelsea, the second the first leg of the 2010 semi-final while manager of Internazionale. On both occasions, Mourinho’s men sat in behind the ball, content to let Barcelona’s centre-backs and deepest midfielders have the ball, before pouncing on them in numbers and counter attacking at break-neck speed (see here and here). On both occasions, he achieved this through pacy wide man rather than fast strikers; Arjen Robben and Damien Duff and Goran Pandev and Samuel Eto’o (a striker playing wide on that occasion).
Mourinho might have to conjure up a similar formula to achieve his aims with Manchester United. Rooney and Ibrahimovic do not appear to be a complementary partnership, nor do they offer the incision and counter attacking potency Mourinho usually favours.
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