The Belgian has netted 12 times in 18 games as Manchester United's star striker this term but Ibrahimovic's return is likely to compromise his role.
An amazing roar went up as Zlatan Ibrahimovic embraced Anthony Martial and jogged onto the playing surface for the first time in seven months, arms pumping, head down. He raised his head once more a few yards later, took one look at Romelu Lukaku, pointed to the Manchester United number nine and directed him away from the centre of the pitch. “On the right,” he could be seen clearly mouthing.
With that, Ibrahimovic was back. And Lukaku was already feeling the effects. Whereas Jose Mourinho had started the second half of the 4-1 win over Newcastle United on Saturday with Marcus Rashford alongside Lukaku in a rare switch to a 4-4-2, there was to be no compromising Zlatan’s natural game for the final 15 minutes of the match.
Until the Swede returned at the weekend Lukaku had been the immovable object spearheading Mourinho’s United attack all season. Just as Ibrahimovic was untouchable last term, it was the former Everton front man who was given the same tag by his manager in recent weeks amid questions over his form. But now they have two big, bruising battlers to fit into one role and it looks unlikely to be Zlatan who will be asked to adapt.
Ibrahimovic has rarely been one for stepping aside and playing second fiddle during his success-laden career. Wherever he has gone, he has usually got his way and trophies have followed. He spoke shortly before returning to the field last weekend about his ability to do the newly-acquired number 10 shirt proud, but the inference was that he was simply talking of a prestige of the jersey worn by the likes of Pele, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi during their careers rather than dropping into a slightly deeper position.
Only at Barcelona was there any inclination not to indulge the self-proclaimed lion by playing him front and centre, and his relationship with Pep Guardiola quickly soured as a result of the coach’s decision to make Lionel Messi his attacking focal point rather than Ibra.
Elsewhere he has forced the likes of David Trezeguet, Adriano, Alexandre Pato and Edinson Cavani to deploy slightly altered roles as his one-man show has rolled around Europe dominating forward lines and collecting league titles for fun. While he has fitted in well alongside more creative players more suited to the number 10 role such as Alessandro Del Piero, Clarence Seedorf and Javier Pastore.
Zlatan is known to be adept at dropping into pockets and getting involved in play from there, but it is all a part of his unique approach to the centre-forward position rather than proof of an ability to fulfil the obligations of attacking midfield or second striker generally accepted as the ‘number 10’.
That is not to say that Lukaku will never get another chance in the middle of attack now that the 28-goal top scorer of last season has returned. For a start, he will continue to get the nod as a number nine for the time being as Ibrahimovic continues his recovery with increased opportunities from the substitutes bench.
“He made a full recovery but now you cannot expect him to be ready to play a full 90 minutes or to be ready to play consecutive matches like he did all through his career,” Mourinho said of the 36-year-old on Tuesday ahead of the Champions League clash with Basel which could see United qualify for the last 16 with a draw or better. “Now he needs time to get back to his level, his fitness, his confidence, his sharpness, his everything.”
Even beyond that there will surely be occasional matches for which Mourinho decides to go with a front two, and the manager insists they can play both be a part of a successful team. “It is easy. Good players can play together. The problem is when the players are not good, but for good players it is easy to play together.”
But starting with a twin strike force is likely to be an exception rather than the norm if Mourinho’s track record is anything to go by, and Zlatan is not used to altering his game for the greater good so it would appear that the responsibility to play out of his comfort zone will fall on Lukaku.
It is arguable that United will actually benefit from the Belgian being used away from the centre. While they already have a multitude of options available out wide thanks to the likes of Rashford, Martial, Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard, the desire to get Lukaku into the XI is understandable. And his recent run of indifferent form has highlighted the continued need for him to work on his play with back to goal, so a few stints on the flank might well aid him in broadening his skill set in a way which will add to his game in the long run.
For some followers, the answer is as easy as adding Lukaku’s goal tally with Ibrahimovic’s to make a career tally of 577 club goals and insisting they play as a strike force. But that is easier said than done when front men start making natural runs into one another’s path, and Zlatan has previously revelled when all of the focus has been on his shoulders. Add in Mourinho’s natural instinct for going with a solo front man and Lukaku’s seeming inability to play the creative role and it would appear that the Belgian will have to play as part of the supporting cast out on the wing for much of this season.
The onus is on Lukaku to prove he can play to Ibrahimovic’s strengths, not the other way around. Unless, of course, he becomes Lionel Messi overnight.