Can Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic play together?
Manchester United started the 2017/18 season raising a storm and scoring goals for fun. New club striker Lukaku was in red-hot form and has 12 goals for the club in 18 games, across all competitions, which had the fans going "Zlatan who?"
But, the club went through a bad patch of form in late October and early November, part of the problem was a dry spell for Lukaku. So naturally, the news of Pogba and Zlatan's return to the squad excited the fans. But this comes with a question along, Can Mourinho get Zlatan and Lukaku playing together on the same team?
A question like this certainly seems like a good problem to have. Most teams would willingly take on this headache if they could get two players of the calibre of Ibrahimovic and Lukaku. But with Manchester United trying to keep pace with their flying neighbours, the time to test out new tactics and allowing a partnership to grow has passed. If the two forwards have to play on the same team, then Mourinho needs to fine-tune the details immediately. Analysing the style of play of both players gives us a better insight into this conundrum.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic: The perfect hold-up attacker
At 36, Zlatan Ibrahomivic is still a uniquely impactful player, despite having lost his pace. His ability to hold the ball up and play the perfect passes to pacy wingers running off him is what makes him the perfect player for Mourinho's team. His presence in the box and what he can do there is stuff of legends, but in a league where no fixture is easy, the amount of time he gets in the opponents box is limited. His effectiveness has therefore decreased and while his last season was still pretty good, it was not Zlatan standard.
Mourinho loves having forwards who can hold up the game and release the pressure while also starting off counter attacks, all by themselves. Zlatan fits this mould perfectly. His first touch hasn't faded, neither has his vision. Those are two really underrated skills that are important to his game.
In the game against Chelsea, having someone of Ibra's quality would have helped United in putting the Chelsea defence under more pressure. They allowed Chelsea to press and tried to hit on the counter with the pace of Martial, Valencia and Rashford. But the moment United regained possession they tried to play it to Lukaku who was immediately ambushed by the Chelsea defenders, cutting out any possibility of Rashford or Martial getting a run at Chelsea's defence.
While United use their pace to make great use of their possession against the lesser teams in the Premier League, the same tactic doesn't work against the tougher opponents because Mourinho's United don't care about possession in the big games. They like sitting back and playing out from there. With two back to back tough fixtures against Arsenal and Man City coming up in December, having the technical ability of Zlatan Ibrahimovic is extremely crucial to Manchester United.
But where does that leave Romelu Lukaku?
Romelu Lukaku and the Drogba Dilemma
Romelu Lukaku one of the most misunderstood players in the Premier League. His terrific build and imposing presence, since his Chelsea days, has lead people to compare him to Didier Drogba. But that is nowhere close to how Lukaku plays. The Drogba way of playing was perfect for a team that likes working on the counter-attack. He was a perfect outlet player and if you could clear the ball, he would hold on to the ball and release the runners around him and then follow them into the box where he could be found for the perfect finish.
But Lukaku's style makes it impossible for him to perform well in a defensive set up. His style of play was what made Mourinho decide to sell him at Chelsea. Mourinho likes a defensive set up, especially in big games where his team's primary responsibility is to soak up the pressure and keep a clean sheet.
The role of a forward in the same set up is to hold up the ball when it gets cleared and start off the counter-attack. But holding up the ball and playing perfect passes to teammates is not a part of Lukaku's game. That is the problem that has resulted in his bleak stats against the Top 6 teams in the Premier League. Whenever they've punted it long, Lukaku has looked clueless, often not even collecting a long pass properly.
The Zlatan role is not something that fans should expect from Lukaku. Lukaku's terrible record against top clubs has been discussed often. But the few people look beyond the stats. Lukaku has played a majority of his Premier League games with West Brom and Everton. Both of these clubs, with all due respect to them, were underdogs against any of the top 6 teams.
Lukaku as a striker flourishes when his team holds on to the ball and keeps letting him run off the last defender. But in all the big games that Lukaku has been a part of in the Premier League, he has never had an open, free-flowing game that suited his style. The same problem plagues him in United where the team plays in a compact defensive style against the other teams in the top 6, thereby leaving Lukaku's chances of running behind the defensive line a near impossibility. Though the style has historically worked for Mourinho and his strikers, it doesn't suit Lukaku.
Lukaku and Zlatan can compliment each other
On paper having both Lukaku and Zlatan in the squad, especially against the top 6 opponents makes a lot of sense, wherein Zlatan can be used as the outlet from defence and Lukaku along with Rashford can be the runners. So strictly on paper, in the big games, Lukaku and Zlatan cannot just be accommodated, but United could actually benefit from playing both forwards on the same team.
This would leave no room for Juan Mata or Mkhitaryan, but neither of the duo is effective in a defensive set up, so United would not be sacrificing much in the bargain. A team lined up in this way would something like this:
In the previous game against Newcastle, Ibrahimovic finally made his return and Mourinho tried to accommodate both Ibrahimovic and Lukaku by moving the latter to the right wing. This role is completely new to Lukaku and based on the short, 12-minute evidence, it doesn't look like the solution. Lukaku looked awkward playing in the wing with very little idea of where to position himself when Newcastle attacked.
It is more than likely that Mourinho only moved Lukaku to the right as a 10-minute solution for the game to give Ibrahimovic a run-out. A man of Mourinho's experience knows better than to try playing an out and out striker like Lukaku on the wing, especially when he requires a winger to fall back and defend; something that Lukaku has zero experience in doing.
Jose Mourinho is the only man who knows what the future of the Manchester United squad looks like. But he has spoken of trying out both the club's strikers together and if they work well with each other then they could form a lethal striking partnership that would give the best teams a defensive nightmare.
This strategy though, comes with its own set of question marks. Jose Mourinho requires all his players to put in a defensive shift and that is one thing that has never changed about Mourinho over the years. Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic can both go in for the defensive headers while defending corners and free kicks, but that is pretty much the most they can do on defence.
So unless Mourinho decides to change the way he wants his team to play, it is difficult envisioning a United team with both Lukaku and Ibrahimovic. But should he decide to make that shift (fans of United have been calling for a shift to the 'United Way') it might prove to be the perfect solution to United's current problem of coming up short against the top Premier League opponents.