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.