In the troubles that seem to have afflicted Manchester United in Premier League, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s slump is worrying. The Swede, who had started off gangbusters, scoring 4 goals in the first 4 Premier League matches, had a dry spell for his next 6 appearances. This is an abstinence that has not occurred in his career since 2007, when he was still playing for Inter. Compared with last season, his current scoring percentage has dropped from 46.9 to 20%, whereas his total scoring percentage has even gone from 24.6 to 7%. It is probable that, even for a champion of the Swede’s calibre, the arrival in Premier League has proven to be a difficult undertaking. But it makes one think that there may also be tactical reasons.

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On average, Ibrahimovic shoots 5.7 times per match (1.9 from outside the penalty area), whereas in the last season in Ligue 1 he shot 5.5 times (1.8 from outside the penalty area). In other words, the number of shots is identical compared with PSG, but he has become less dangerous. This is also merit of the greater physicality of English defenders, a factor that deprives the Swede of one of his dominating traits.

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On a tactical level, it is easy to see that one of Ibrahimovic’s current problems is the lack of a supporting cast at his level. At PSG, with the ball on the ground, he could work with players of the calibre of Angel Di Maria, Edinson Cavani, Javier Pastore and Marco Verratti (to name a few). Now, on the other hand, Mourinho’s strategy tends to isolate him more in attack, depriving him of players that compensate for the reduced mobility with their constant movement beside him. If, as already mentioned, his physicality is less devastating, this can only amplify the problem.

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A detail that should not be overlooked is the type of play that Mourinho demands of Ibrahimovic. The Swede, in terms of balls played, attempted and successful dribbling, but also in terms of balls lost, has stats that are entirely similar to those of 2015-16. However, the true difference lies in a rather relevant statistic: aerial duels. In 2015-16, he engaged in 2.3 per match, winning 65%, whereas now he engages in 5.8, winning 55%. Never before in his career has he been forced to play so many high balls. What does this mean? That Ibrahimovic is being asked to play a different type of role, destined to decrease his technical impact even in light of the aforementioned problems of physicality. Asking him to make the difference from this point of view (even looking for him almost systematically when Gea puts the ball back into play) and not with the ball on the ground, does not seem to be a profitable strategy. And, based on any trend reversal (given the data, in any case this should be a passing dry spell for Ibrahimovic), performance will inevitably change for all of Manchester United.

Finishing % 16-17: 20%

Total finishing % 16-17: 7%

Finishing % 15-16: 46.9%

Total finishing % 15-16:  24.6%

Shots % 16-17: 5.7 (1.9 from outside the penalty area)

Shots % 15-16: 5.5 (1.8 from outside the penalty area)

Aerial duels 16-17: 5.8 (55% won)

Aerial duels 15-16: 2.3 (65% won)

Mattia Fontana
Mattia Fontana, Eurosport Italia editor.