Ibrahimovic the master teaching Rashford the apprentice
Swedish striker netted 13th goal in 19 league starts while teenager was man of the match
Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring the second goal in their 2-0 Premier League win over West Ham. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s contribution was the garnish rather than the main course but compared with the kind of nourishment he had proposed for some onlookers earlier in the week, it still went down rather well. His had been a supporting part in a Manchester United performance that offered little more than fits and spurts before the game-changing introductions of Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata that terminally stretched West Ham United, but the 35-year-old Swede possesses a knack of having the last word at will. His first goal of 2017 showed once more that time’s passage means little when a showman is doing as he always has.
It is more of a surprise when Ibrahimovic does not raise the eyebrows but he still wrong-footed a few when, on the eve of this fixture, he announced a gift for malapropism. “Like always, I make them eat their balls” was his verdict on the way in which he has silenced any critics over the past five months and if that brought some rather awkward contortions to mind it was a reminder – were one needed – that the Swede has displayed some remarkable elasticity of his own.
Had a typically age-defying star-jump against Middlesbrough little more than 48 hours previously brought the valid goal it deserved, Ibrahimovic would have equalled Lionel Messi’s 51-goal tally for 2016. It was some year for a man who left Paris as a self-crowned king and is on the way to attaining similar status in Manchester; piece by piece his swaggering efficiency has rubbed off on a team who spent so long looking crushingly prosaic and the return of the “Old United”, of which Usain Bolt chose to broadcast his delight on New Year’s Eve, has been little coincidence.
This, then, seemed a fair enough stage upon which Ibrahimovic could begin 2017 – and certainly one of which Bolt would approve. Three points, as opposed to the three gold medals Bolt won here in 2012, would do this time. Visiting players have provided most of the sparkle at this arena since West Ham’s arrival – recall Alexis Sánchez’s coruscating masterclass of early December – and Ibrahimovic’s newly bereft doubters might reasonably have expected their lesson to be hammered home further.
It said plenty that, despite the burden of two games within a space of time that will surely draw enough complaints to become a thing of the past before long, Ibrahimovic was not one of the five players changed by José Mourinho here. He had never experienced this kind of schedule before but is simply too important to be rested, too focal to an attack that would look brittle without him.
Not that he was at all infallible here. There was little joy to be had early on as United, pushed back by a lively West Ham side, largely left him isolated but that state of affairs quickly changed upon Mike Dean’s bizarre dismissal of Sofiane Feghouli. United’s near-monopoly of possession was inevitable and so, too, was the increased involvement of Ibrahimovic, who became increasingly prominent but had only an awry backheel towards Henrikh Mkhitaryan to show for his early efforts.
He was beginning to pull into troublesome areas, though, and it was a low right-sided delivery that set in train a comedy of attacking errors resulting in Antonio Valencia, then Jesse Lingard, somehow failing to beat Darren Randolph. When Ibrahimovic found a more direct threat of his own, pulling away to the left of the defence after beating the offside trap to a ball over the top, the result was even less edifying: a miscued left-foot volley smashed far over the crossbar when, even on his wrong side, a 13th Premier League goal of the season might not have seemed an unreasonable expectation.
As United eventually turned the screw it was the injection of speed and verve provided by Rashford – attacking an uneasy right-back, Havard Nordtveit, who looked ripe for exposing as soon as the teams’ shapes became obvious – that altered the dynamic. Ibrahimovic loves helping Rashford develop. “Time by time, he will take over everything,” he said of the 19-year-old in September, and one adept piece of hold-up play and through-ball provided a half-chance to underscore the point. This time the apprentice’s flourish could not match the touch of the sorcerer, Randolph saving at his near post, but the germ of an understanding between players at opposite ends of the career spectrum was at least in evidence.
Ibrahimovic promptly gave Rashford an up-close tutorial of how it was done. He was offside when he profited from an eccentric piece of defending from Pedro Obiang and a ricochet off Ander Herrera, but he was the last person to care. Randolph was left standing: 19 Premier League starts, 13 Premier League goals; a statistic as fresh and vital as the man who had created it.
Mourinho is no fool: despite current evidence, it would be little short of miraculous if Ibrahimovic did not need some kind of breather over the next five months. Here, on a night when their manager suggested they looked tired and for long periods short of the ingenuity required to break down opponents reduced to 10 men, was at least some suggestion that United have the wherewithal to skin an obdurate cat in different ways.
Yet even on a relative off-night, Ibrahimovic showed how quickly he has become indispensable to the current United setup – and how much succour he takes from making others swallow words, predictions, and plenty more besides.