Rewind to last August, with the Jose Mourinho era at Manchester United in its infancy the prospects for two players could not have been more different. Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived a star, with comparisons being made to the last egotistical ‘king’ who had entranced the Old Trafford faithful and elevated the club from perennial disappointments to serial champions. The supporters, starved of magic and on-field inspiration during the tedious tenure of Louis Van Gaal, welcomed the veteran with open arms. The Swede has won titles wherever he has played and had defied the ageing process during his time is France with PSG, scoring an insane 50 goals in 51 games in his final year there. A debut goal at Bournemouth and another brace in the first home game of the Premier League season against Southampton reinforced the initial impression that this new look United, with Zlatan, Pogba and Mkhitaryan would excite and return the club to something approaching the prolific goalscoring machine it had become under Sir Alex.
In contrast Marcos Rojo appeared to have no future at the club whatsoever. Used primarily at left back by Van Gaal last season, a position in which the Argentine is nothing short of a disaster, few would have shed a tear if the two year association between United and the player had ended that summer. Mourinho mouthpiece Duncan Castles reported that Rojo was available for transfer and that there was serious interest in his services on the continent and from China. In the last Red Voices podcast of last season I opined that my favourite memory of the player from that campaign was the last moment I had to see him in a United shirt. It was a harsh assessment, but his contribution over the previous twelve months had been negligible. Whilst he had previously performed reasonably well as a centre back early in the Van Gaal tenure, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Daley Blind and new signing Eric Bailly all appeared to be ahead of Rojo in that position. Only lack of numbers could justify his retention as an option at left back.
Fast forward to the present and things have not panned out entirely as expected. Both Ibrahimovic and Rojo suffered potentially serious knee injuries in the nervy 2-1 win over Anderlecht on Thursday, a result which leaves United one step from the Europa League final in Stockholm, but opinions of the players have seismically shifted. If both are to miss the remainder of the season, or at least a good portion of it, a strong case can be made for the Argentine being the bigger loss to the team going forward. Zlatan has scored 28 goals this season, a remarkable tally for a 35 year old and, with others struggling to net with any regularity, his contribution has at times been essential. His brace at Wembley won United the League Cup on an afternoon when Mourinho’s side were outplayed by a fresher, more fluid Southampton. We will have some wonderful memories of the Swede, whether he remains at the club next year or leaves for sunnier climes. The apparent severity of his injury, caused by the hyperextension of his knee joint as he landed after contesting a header, may shape his future.
However, many fans and observers are coming to the conclusion that it may be, at least to some extent, the presence of Zlatan that has contributed to the inconsistent football on display and disappointing goal tally so far this season. Ibrahimovic has been as profligate as any of his teammates and supporters have become frustrated at his recent poor overall performances. He has struggled to hold the ball up, conceded possession frequently and been a passenger, slowing play down as United have countered when what has been needed is speed of body and mind. What’s more, the player’s age and mobility mean that he limits the team’s ability to press effectively high up the pitch. His defenders argue, however, that he provides a powerful focal point for the attack and is capable of something special even when performing terribly, as he wonderful goal at Sunderland demonstrated.
The last week, however, has not been kind to those who feel that the positives outweigh the negatives. Relegated to the bench against Chelsea, Zlatan could only watch on as Marcus Rashford, so often exiled to the left wing this season, put in a prodigious performance at centre forward, pressing effectively and terrorising the visitors’ back line with his pace and movement. The standard of the team’s overall performance was elevated by the extra attacking dimension the gifted youngster offered them, freed from his left-touchline shackles and given licence to roam and create havoc wherever he saw fit. It was a display which contrasted sharply with the static, ineffective Swede’s recent contributions and it would not be a controversial claim that United would have been unlikely to win with Zlatan leading the line. Against Anderlecht Ibrahimovic (and by extension) United laboured, making hard work of an opponent possessing significantly less talent. Many supporters were calling for his substitution long before the unfortunate injury at the very end of the 90 minutes of regulation time. Whilst the pressure was slowly building on the Belgians, Zlatan missed two guilt-edged chances as extra-time approached. With the Swede off the field Rashford moved up front and immediately terrorised his marker, missing two clear chances before finally netting, controlling Fellaini’s knock down, shifting the ball left and stroking home to win the match. With Ibrahimovic now likely to miss the remainder of the season Rashford will start at centre forward and many feel that United’s prospects are raised by such a decision being forced upon Mourinho, albeit in the most of undesirable of circumstances.
By the time Ibrahimovic limped down the Old Trafford tunnel Rojo had long since left the pitch on a stretcher after an unsuccessful attempt to continue after also injuring his knee. The sight of the Argentine crippled left many fans feeling deflated. Out of favour in the opening two months of the season, at centre back at least, Rojo and Phil Jones were drafted in to the starting lineup at Swansea in early October after injuries robbed the manager of both Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling. The former has not looked back since, becoming an integral part of United’s defence, initially alongside first Jones and now Eric Bailly, contributing hugely to a defensive record that is amongst the best in Europe’s big five leagues, a 22 game unbeaten run in the Premier League, the League Cup triumph and the run to the semi-finals of the Europa League. Rugged, strong, with a healthy portion of snide (as Diego Costa could testify), Rojo has had an impressive season. As he was carried from the pitch on a stretcher on Thursday United fans faced the prospect of not only approaching a forbidding fixture list without one of their outstanding defenders, and with Smalling and Jones already unavailable the alternatives simply do not compare.
No-one likes to see players pick up serious injuries, or to contemplate the negative consequences when they happen to members of your own club’s team. Both Ibrahimovic and Rojo will be missed for as long as they are out of contention for selection, and it would be cruel should the former have to watch United play in a Europa League final played in his home nation, at a stadium where a statue of one of Sweden’s greatest ever players is to be erected. But observers who had missed the last eight or so months of football would be astonished to hear United fans opine that the Argentine is the greater loss, a reversal in fortunes that few could have predicted. The absence of Rojo appears only to have a downside, but the loss of Zlatan opens a window of opportunity for the precociously gifted Marcus Rashford to perform in his favoured position and for the theories regarding Ibrahimovic’s lack of mobility, the knock on effect it has on his team’s attacking pace and fluidity and the way in which it limits United’s ability to defend from the front, to be put to the test. Rashford’s exhilarating performances against Chelsea and Anderlecht suggest that he may be ready to lead the line. He needs to improve his finishing, something he has in common with many of his teammates, but practice makes perfect and, at last, practice he shall get. The fans are far less enthused by the potential replacements for Rojo.