The Swede is struggling up front by himself, so the Portuguese must find a way to take some of the pressure from his main man.
The 21st century is a time of rampant immediacy. We are not made to wait too long for anything anymore, and nowhere is that more evident than in football. As attention spans become shorter, so too does tolerance.
Fans are making their minds up sooner than before, changing their minds more rapidly, accepting defeats less graciously. Chairmen are sacking managers increasingly quicker in the face of poor results and heightened pressure, and managers dropping under-performing players more hastily in the face of ever-more immediate demands from all quarters.
In the past few days it has been suggested to this writer more than once that Jose Mourinho could soon be sacked by Manchester United. On the face of it, the firing of a manager who has taken charge of just 10 league games seems a ridiculous idea given that this is the club who watched Sir Alex Ferguson reign for 26 years until relatively recently. But another summer recruit is also seeing his United stint judged relatively quickly as onlookers demand finite answers to complex questions.
People are quickly making their minds up about Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whether that be those deciding five games and five goals into his United career that he was going to automatically transfer his goalscoring form from Ligue 1 to the Premier League, or the onlookers now decrying the Swede as an out-of-touch, over-the-hill, self-serving impediment to his latest club’s progress.
The truth, as is regularly the case, falls somewhere between the two. Just as nobody should suggest he will score 50 goals this term, neither is it prudent to write off his English experience 10 games in. His lack of form is, of course, an issue and is rightly being discussed at length. But the swathe of naysayers looking to declare his United move a failure before winter has even arrived is as blinkered as it gets.
It is clear that Ibrahimovic is way off his usual level, and not just statistically. His eight-week stretch without a league goal has coincided with some glaring errors in front of goal. There was the miscued header against Liverpool, a wayward effort after rising high to win Antonio Valencia’s cross at a key time in the hammering at Chelsea, and a complete air-shot from Marcus Rashford’s low centre in the EFL Cup clash with Manchester City.
But there have been positives within his play at times too, and while hold-up play with your back to goal is rightly seen as a less crucial task than sticking the ball in the back of the net giving his work in that department greater scrutiny asks greater questions of Mourinho’s use of the 35-year-old than of the player himself.
Because, in truth, Ibra has too often been isolated up front this season, and particularly so since Wayne Rooney’s spell as a regular starter has come to an end. A striker can do all the jostling he likes in the penalty area, but if he is ultimately outnumbered in the final third he can only do so much to instigate a flowing attacking move.
United have done pretty well out of Ibrahimovic so far this season in terms of the number of chances they are making. Only when Mourinho has sent them out with the modus operandi of frustrating their opponents against Liverpool and Chelsea have they returned a worrying shot-rate themselves. Against the likes of Hull City, Leicester, Stoke, Burnley and even in the second half of the league loss to Manchester City, there has been an abundance of opportunities afforded them thanks to the presence that Zlatan provides.
But the quality of opportunities hasn’t necessarily been of the required level, and while Mourinho has made occasional tweaks in the midfield to try to help out Paul Pogba – albeit with no great success thus far – he has done little in terms of complementing Ibrahimovic more overtly.
The best 4-2-3-1 setups have regularly been those which allow the four forwards to act as a very fluid system, releasing the burden for goalscoring from the figurehead striker and subsequently helping free space for the No.9. But Mourinho has always been a stickler for his attackers, particularly those in wider positions, working hard off the ball too and demands placed on those generally employed to show creativity can often cause trouble when it comes to throwing off the shackles at the other end. If he is going to get more out of his talisman, he may have to free the chains and permit the likes of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Mata to create havoc in the penalty area. So, too, send Valencia and Luke Shaw forward with more abandon.
Perhaps it is down to his relative conservatism that Mourinho ultimately failed to coax Ibrahimovic out of his Champions League funk at Inter as they were knocked out by United without scoring a goal or creating an abundance of openings over the two legs in 2008-09. Maybe he found it more conducive to his management style to have a Diego Milito pouncing in the final third rather than an Ibrahimovic arrogantly prowling around it.
Either way, Mourinho has to find an answer. Should he leave out Ibrahimovic in light of his recent form? Quite possibly. Should he be busily coming up with a solution to his striker’s malaise rather than unthinkingly throwing him out there once more and hoping for the best? Definitely. Zlatan can be one of the game’s deadliest front men when firing, but right now the Swede’s on-field arrogance is getting him nowhere rather than being the positive injection it should be for United.
But just as the manager has yet to come up with a solution, we are all still a long way from being able to write the final chapter in Ibrahimovic’s United story. A player who has always polarised opinion will continue to attract definitive judgements, good and bad, every time he pulls on a Manchester United shirt. Mourinho’s biggest task is to make them more good than bad.