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Jose Mourinho must look to the future as Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Manchester United career is over

Martyn Cooke



Photo: Reuters

When Zlatan Ibrahimovic suffered a severe cruciate knee ligament injury in April during Manchester United’s Europa League tie against Anderlecht there were many pundits, supporters and commentators across world football that predicted that his career at the top level may have been over.

The then-35-year-old had been a pivotal part of the club’s campaign but there were doubts over whether the striker would be able to recover from a long-term injury at such an age.

Therefore it was no surprise to see Ibrahimovic receive a hero’s welcome from the Old Trafford faithful when he made his long-awaited return in mid-November as a late substitute in Manchester United’s four-goal victory against Newcastle United.

The game almost had a fairy tale end when the striker acrobatically met a swinging cross with a scissor kick, but the ambitious strike was pushed away for a corner.

However, the now 36-year-old has struggled to rediscover the form, creativity and goal scoring instinct since his return to first team action and he has looked increasingly out of place in a number of cameo appearances over the Christmas period.

He made his first start against Bristol City in the Carabao Cup but was largely ineffectual until he scored a stunning free kick to level the score line.

However, that one moment of magic was the only positive contribution that the Swede made on the evening, before being replaced during the second half. The fact that he made little impact against opposition from the Championship will have come as a concern to both Jose Mourinho and United supporters.

Ibrahimovic was subsequently handed his first start in the Premier League against Burnley six days later but was replaced at half-time with his side trailing by two goals.

Whilst the 36-year-old should be rightly credited with recovering from the cruciate knee ligament injury, there has been little in his recent appearances to suggest that he will be able to recapture his previous sparkling form.

He may walk with the same arrogant swagger but the reality is that he is a pale imitation of his previous self with his performances characterised by misplaced passes, sliced shots and an inability to keep up with the pace of the game.

Mourinho must focus on the next generation

It would be wrong to suggest that Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s career is over, yet there is now a strong argument that Jose Mourinho needs to start investing his time and energy in Manchester United’s young starlets rather than a 36-year-old who has hardly played for the best part of a year.

The Swede is currently unavailable due to a minor injury and it has been suggested that he will benefit from a full pre-season programme when the summer arrives.

However, the problem for Mourinho is that Ibrahimovic, now into his late-thirties, is not the long-term solution to United’s current issues. How much time are the club willing to provide the striker in the hope that he may rediscover some of his former magic?

And time is something the Mouirnho does not have.

United have found themselves desperately trying to hang on to the coattails of their cross-city rivals, Manchester City, and Pep Guardiola’s football revolution has put Mourinho firmly on the back foot.

The Portuguese maestro now finds himself under pressure to keep up with City and not only to secure silverware but also to produce a team that matches the entertainment value of Guardiola’s side.

Mourinho may feel a strong sense of loyalty towards Ibrahimovic but his attention must now turn to the next generation.

Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have both impressed with their dynamic performances so far this campaign and, although they have both been deployed in wide positions, the duo sees their long-term future as playing through the middle.

There have been signs that the pair have started to fulfil their potential and both have been producing positive performances on a much more consistent basis.

Whilst they may still sit behind Romelu Lukaku in the pecking order to be the main central striker at Old Trafford, they have overtaken Ibrahimovic in terms of their contribution and their importance within the current United team.

It would be wrong to write-off Ibrahimovic at this stage, although the evidence so far does not bode well, and the Swedish striker has continually proved his critics wrong throughout his career.

However, United need to look beyond his performances last season and focus on the future – Rashford and Martial.

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.


Everton are favourites to sign Chris Smalling, should he make the move?



As it looks likely that there will be yet more summer upheaval at Old Trafford this summer as Jose Mourinho attempts to mount a fight against Manchester City next season, and one of the men to fall victim to that could be Chris Smalling.

Smalling has already lost his spot in the England squad under Gareth Southgate and may miss out on a World Cup place, but remains a regular option for Mourinho.

That said, if United are to look to improve over the summer then some of the changes are likely to come at the back and that could spell an end to Smalling’s career in Manchester, particularly if he wants to regain a spot in the England squad.

If he does leave Old Trafford, the favourites to snap him up are Everton with Sky Bet offering odds of 5/1.

(during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Huddersfield Town at Old Trafford on February 3, 2018 in Manchester, England.)

The Toffees are bound to be on the lookout for improvements of their own, with Ashley Williams not as convincing as many had hoped, Phil Jagielka far past his best and Michael Keane disappointing since his move last summer.

Smalling has experience at the very highest level and has shown with United that he has what it takes, even if he lacks the consistency and occasionally makes some costly mistakes.

Everton’s good relationship with United could be key to securing his signature with many Premier League clubs likely to be interested if he is for sale, with Leicester, Crystal Palace and Newcastle all in the running according to the odds.

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Manchester United

Tottenham’s decision to rush back Harry Kane cost them in the FA Cup

The England international has only recently come back from injury.



Harry Kane
Photo: Getty Images

Harry Kane was a shadow of his former self against Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final Saturday afternoon, contributing little as Tottenham Hotspur fell to a 2-1 defeat.

The English international struggled to influence the match and was clearly off the pace. It is glaringly clear that Mauricio Pochettino rushed Kane back from his ankle injury far too soon; a decision that may well have cost Spurs their best recent chance at silverware.

Back in March, the striker crumpled under an awkward challenge from Bournemouth‘s Asmir Begovic and left the match on crutches. Spurs fans held their breath in fear and were crushed when it was later revealed Kane had suffered ligament damage.

It was a blow that was widely expected to keep Kane on the sidelines for the next couple months, but remarkably the striker returned just three weeks later in a 3-1 away win against Chelsea.

However, in the following run of matches leading up to the season-defining encounter against Manchester United, Kane had largely looked unfit and missing his classic verve and intensity that has come to define his game.

(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

This lethargy was notably on show in the midweek fixture against Brighton. Although the 24-year-old scored a goal, he appeared tired and unwilling to make his characteristic attacking runs behind the defence.

On the biggest stage of them all, Tottenham’s star striker was well off his prolific best. It was a shame that Kane could not rise to the Wembley occasion and send Spurs to the FA Cup final.

However, it is through no fault of the Englishman, as the blame must be placed on the over-eager Tottenham backroom staff. There was no need to rush Kane back for the league matches before the massive semifinal, and the striker should have been saved for the United match.

As a result of Pochettino’s poor decision, Spurs are trophy-less and Kane is damaged – a tragic turn of events for the north London club.

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Manchester United

Has Romelu Lukaku enjoyed a successful debut season at Manchester United?

The Belgian international has 27 goals in all competitions this season.

Martyn Cooke



Romelu Lukaku
Photo: Getty Images

Expectations at Old Trafford have always been high.

Over the previous three decades, Manchester United have become one of the most successful club teams in Europe with Sir Alex Ferguson creating an era of dominance that brought success and trophies on a previously unprecedented scale.

His successors may not have been able to directly replicate his achievements, both David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal won just won FA Cup between them, but the raised bar that he set remains in place.

Expectations of individual players are also high, especially if you happen to be a striker.

Wayne Rooney, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Robin Van Persie, Eric Cantona, Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham are just a small selection of prestigious names that have shouldered the goal scoring responsibility at Old Trafford.

So, it would be fair to say that Romelu Lukaku has some rather large historical boots to fill.

The Belgian striker arrived at Old Trafford in the summer for an initial fee of £75 million after prolific spells with Everton and West Bromwich Albion.

He was brought in by Jose Mourinho to be the focal point of the Manchester United attack and to placate some of the goal scoring issues that the Portuguese coach had experience in his debut season with the club.

(Photo credit should read PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

A big-name striker, following in the footsteps of club legends, at a club that demands success – expectations were certainly high.

So, how do we rate Lukaku’s first season with Manchester United?

On Wednesday evening the Belgian climbed off the bench at the Vitality Stadium to score the goal that secured three points against Bournemouth. It was the 24-year-old’s 16th Premier League strike of the season and the 27th goal that he has netted in all competitions so far this campaign.

In basic terms, this season has been the most successful and prolific in front of goal in Lukaku’s career.

Mourinho has been using the Belgian as a lone striker and the focal point of Manchester United’s attack in a campaign in which the club has struggled to maintain pace with their cross-city rivals.

Lukaku has demonstrated that he possesses the pace, power and strength to become one of the leading strikers in world football and when he is fit, confident and on form the 24-year-old is as good as anyone else in the business.

However, despite his considerable goal return Lukaku has not been without his critics in his debut season at Old Trafford.

It has been suggested that the Belgian is a fast-track bully, a big-name that only scores against the so-called ‘smaller’ clubs and fails to produce when it really matters.

Critics point to the limited impact that he has had in matches against Manchester United’s direct rivals – he has scored only once against a top six-team this season.

Some supporters have also become increasingly frustrated that Mourinho’s reliance on Lukaku has seen game time restricted for players such as Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.

(Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

The duo started the game against Bournemouth in mid-week and flourished in the Belgian’s absence, offering a more mobile, pacey form of attack that has often been missing this season.

Finally, it is noticeable that Lukaku has been lagging behind somewhat in the Premier League goal scoring charts this campaign. He is currently the sixth leading scorer in the league and has found the back of the net 14 times fewer than Mohamed Salah and 10 times less than Harry Kane.

However, when analysing the 24-year-old’s performances this season it is also worth remembering the pragmatic style of play that Mourinho has utilised.

The Portuguese coach is renowned for his defensive approach against other top-six teams whilst even against so-called ‘lesser’ clubs Manchester United have struggled to produce an aesthetically pleasing style of play.

The fact that Lukaku is on track to score 30 goals this season given the general approach of his manager should be applauded, not derided.

The Belgian has undoubtedly been a success in his debut season at Old Trafford but there is certainly room for improvement next year. However, Lukaku is still only 24 and he still has an abundance of time to grow, improve and develop his game whilst the peak years of his career are still ahead of him.

Manchester United supporters will be hoping that his significant goal return this season is just the start and that Lukaku will be able to build on the relative success of his debut campaign and push his game onto the next level next year.

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