Perhaps the three-match ban for Zlatan Ibrahimovic came at the right time for Jose Mourinho and Manchester United.
But before I dive into the debate, I won’t ignore the obvious.
The Swedish striker’s influence on – and off – the pitch has been superb, scoring 26 goals in 41 appearances in all competitions.
However, we’ve also witnessed Zlatan missing the target on a regular basis and costing United points.
Indeed, when you compare Ibrahimovic’s statistics to other strikers of the same level, it does not read well for the Swedish superstar.
Mourinho’s main man has had a total of 79 shots in the Premier League, with only 43 finding themselves on target. That is a very poor rate of 54%.
On the other hand, Premier League top scorer Romelu Lukaku has had fewer shots than Ibrahimovic, 66 to be exact, but has an 11% increase on the Man United striker’s output.
Harry Kane, in second place for the Golden Boot, has a 63% rate of hitting the target, having registered just 57 shots. Now that’s impressive.
Pogba has provided, Ibra has been wasteful
When the Red Devils drew to Hull, Burnley and West Ham earlier this season, Ibrahimovic had missed glaring opportunities to either break the deadlock or put United into the driving seat.
No one can really place sole blame on the striker for losing points this season so far. But if you’re not finishing a higher percentage of your chances, there has to be some accountability.
Paul Pogba has faced his critics this season, mainly because he cost a world-record £89m and people expect him to score or assist in every single game.
But statistics show that he has created the second-most amount of chances in the Premier League this season.
The Frenchman has threaded 25 through balls into Ibrahimovic or Marcus Rashford’s path in domestic competition. Only Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal has made more successful through balls (38).
If you watch any Manchester United game, the same pattern emerges in how they attack. Pogba picks up the ball just after the half-way line – which is too deep for a player of his offensive prowess – and looks to send the ball over the last man in the opposition’s defence into Ibrahimovic’s path.
It is then down to the Swede to put the ball into the net. But, more often than not, we see him squander the golden opportunity that was so beautifully carved out.
Rashford offers a completely new dimension
Last weekend we saw Marcus Rashford take his place in the starting line-up, because of Zlatan’s suspension.
What we witnessed was a striker who ran in behind Middlesbrough’s defence, with blistering pace, and caused problems by drawing defenders out of position.
In turn, that allowed the likes of Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard to exploit the space.
Ibrahimovic cannot run the channels for 90 minutes. And no one’s expecting him to. The variance between Rashford and Ibrahimovic’s game is of great use to Mourinho, especially in entering such a hectic period.
But the Red Devils gaffer now needs to rely on his Zlatan understudies and give them the opportunities they crave.
Man United’s target man has one more game out through suspension, against West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League, and it’s a good fixture for Ibrahimovic to miss out.
Rashford is needed to stretch Tony Pulis’ very organised defence and, as shown against Middlesbrough, this type of attacking intent reeks havoc.
The young England international has the raw ability, confidence and skill to run rings around defenders and that is exactly what is needed to get the better of West Brom’s defence.
In these brief moments where we see Rashford taking Ibrahimovic’s position, we’ll get a better understanding of how United could fare once Zlatan decides to either hang up his boots or pack his bags again.
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