Ten-tative Manchester United
Of late, I’ve been fixated on Manchester United’s need for a playmaker in a more advanced position. I thought that, in the right circumstances, Juan Mata could assume the role. That didn’t work. Now it appears Zlatan Ibrahimovic will give it a go when he’s match fit.
Historically, United’s iconic number tens have been more about finishing than starting. Wayne Rooney, Sir Bobby Charlton, and Denis Law are the top three scorers in club history. Dennis Viollet, George Best, and Mark Hughes are all in the top ten. Ruud van Nistlerooy isn’t, but he wore the shirt, as well.
Best is more associated with the seven shirt, of course, as is another former number ten, David Beckham, who was more creator than finisher during the run of play.
United fans have come to expect their number tens to put the ball in the net. When Rooney couldn’t, the fact he was leading the side in helpers didn’t matter a whit.
Ibra’s passion for scoring thus makes him an acceptable number ten to the Old Trafford faithful. Anyone who has seen him flick and back-heel passes into a teammate’s path, whether the ball is on the ground or inflight, can’t help believe he can provide, as well. In a match where the attack was otherwise moribund, United was certainly more fluid, dangerous, and in control in the final third when Zlatan came on for the last half-hour against Brighton Saturday.
With Romelu Lukaku leading the line, the Swede will be expected to create goals more than finish. He has yet to prove he can make the adjustment. While he hasn’t had time, the evidence puts the odds against him.
Expectations not matching his strengths probably put Diego Forlan in United’s 21 shirt even though he had begun to wear the number ten elsewhere, especially with Uruguay. Old Trafford was probably the lowlight in Forlan’s career. Yet, there is no denying he was a world-class playmaker.
Dimitar Berbatov’s indolent style in the number nine shirt irked supporters. He displayed a similar array of flicks and back-heels to Ibra’s, yet lacked the bigger man’s aggression and swagger. The Bulgarian might have been better deployed in a supporting role than as the spearhead in attack.
In short, the club has not been associated with playmaking number tens.
United made a concerted albeit vain effort to sign Wesley Sneijder in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final years. Only Joss Whedon may know how the Dutchman would have fared in red, given the film director’s familiarity with alternate universes. Nonetheless, Sneijder’s manager at Inter was one Jose Mourinho, who exploited his talents perfectly to knock Pep Guardiola from his European perch and secure a Champions League/Scudetto/Coppa d’ Italia treble.
Now, Mourinho could use a similar player at Old Trafford. He has bemoaned the high variance in results from his cadre of individual talents. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba, Lukaku, and Mata, each in their own manner, make their living running at defenders. When they’re on their respective games, the Red Devils appear unstoppable. When they’re off, the team struggles, even at home against a newly promoted side featuring a 34-year-old striker whose Premier League experience is limited to 15 goals in 63 appearances.
The problem is Marcus Rashford is slow. Anthony Martial, too. You’re thinking I’m crazy, but it’s a matter of perspective. Those who glorify Rashford’s pace compare him to other players with the ball at their feet. Yet, a pass delivers the ball from A to B faster than any human can carry it.
When the young English international or his teammates dribble, defenders can close on each in numbers. When an entire side passes the ball around quickly, playing one or two-touch football, defenders must chase. Eventually, gaps open to be exploited. Perhaps this is one reason Manchester City are currently running away with the Premier League title.
This isn’t to say Jose Mourinho should rebuild United in City’s image. Hardly. He found a way to expose Guardiola’s lateral movement when he was at Inter, and again in his second season at Real Madrid. The first time, however, he had Wesley Sneijder directing traffic. For the second go-around it was Mesut Ozil. At the moment, he lacks such a player. He and United, regardless the club’s history with number tens, need one.