Man Utd: Ibrahimovic Mixes the Good with the Bad against Manchester City

zlatan

As far as bizarre performances go, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s League Cup effort against Manchester City was right up there with the best of them. He combined horrendous turnovers with moments of magic over the span of his 90 minutes on the pitch, and as if to keep it neat and tidy for the fans in the stands, he was at his worst in the first half and at his best in the second 45.

In relation to Ibrahimovic’s first half display, Jamie Carragher was particularly scathing. “I don’t think Zlatan Ibrahimovic has probably had a worse 45 minutes than that in his career,” the former Liverpool defender said. That may have been slightly harsh, but the big Swede was clearly some way from his best. He illustrated this just before the interval, twice giving the ball away cheaply. To make matters worse, both of those turnovers came in compromising locations for Manchester United, the first of which, a sideways pass in the defensive half, went straight to Nolito. The Spaniard may have gone on to miscue with his distribution, but if he had completed the relatively straightforward ball to Kelechi Iheanacho, the Nigerian youngster would have been through on goal.

Yet while Ibrahimovic struggled to impose himself early on, he improved dramatically after the break. He played two superb key passes, one of which was an assist for Juan Mata’s game-winner, and he went very close to sliding in Marcus Rashford, with a neat little backheel, as well. So with such variation in his skill execution, it was pretty tough to judge the former PSG hitman on the night. His skill execution ranged between comical and supreme, and for José Mourinho, this must be something of a concern.

There was, however, one aspect of Ibrahimovic’s game that was extremely consistent – his movement. The 35-year-old was, on almost every occasion, excellent in this regard. He typically dropped off the frontline to take up positions in between the lines, and with City central midfield duo Aleix Garcia and Fernando regularly propelling themselves forward in order to press, he found plenty of space in these locations. Add in Ibrahimovic’s propensity to shift to either side of City’s holding midfield pairing, and he had little trouble receiving the ball in unmanned pockets.

Of course, what he did from those positions varied wildly. In the 37th minute, for instance, he picked up possession in a left-of centre location, cruised forward calmly and, with the outside of his right boot, played a crisp through ball to tee-up Rashford. Yet only a few minutes later, in the 42nd minute to be precise, Ibrahimovic made use of a similar position by slipping over as he attempted to play a pass, the ball then ballooning to Fernando in City’s front third.

In a lot of ways, these two moments, so close to one another, summarised Ibrahimovic’s night. There was good and bad, not to mention brilliance and the opposite of that. But crucially for the confidence of the player, there was also plenty of good movement, something which meant Ibrahimovic regularly found himself in desirable spots. In fact, some might say this kind of thing has come to personify the Swede’s play this season. Ibrahimovic’s numbers, especially relating to his output in front of goal, have been doing the rounds this week, and they make for pretty interesting reading. He has generated more shots on goal than any other player in the English Premier League this season, with 45, but he hasn’t scored from any of his previous 30 attempts, and his campaign tally of four goals isn’t exactly impressive either. According to Sky Sports, he has also blown six of his seven “big chances” this season, a surprising figure for a player who netted so frequently for PSG in Ligue 1.

This lack of cutting-edge in the goalmouth again presented itself against Manchester City, where Ibrahimovic barely made contact with a second-half cross from Rashford. As it stands, he’s just not capitalising on his lead-up play, but it still feels like he’s on the cusp of hitting a good run of form. The movement is there and the ability to find himself in the right spot to contribute too, now Ibrahimovic just needs to eliminate the drastic variation in his skill execution.

Manchester United will be hoping that he doesn’t take too long to do it.