It's time for Jose Mourinho to adapt and shift toward a more modern striker
Mino Raiola did not make his millions by selling his clients short. Zlatan Ibrahimovic might be 36 years old this year and might have a cruciate ligament injury that will keep him out until 2018. The out-of-contract Swede's agent nevertheless suggested that a player still at his peak is a man in demand. "Many clubs have asked for Zlatan," he told Sky Italia. "He can play two more years and will stay in Europe, 100 percent."
There might be a struggle for the services of the stricken striker. There is certainly an argument about the direction of Manchester United's attack without him, definitely for the foreseeable future and possibly for good if they do not renew their top scorer's contract or Raiola steers him elsewhere. Ibrahimovic represents one of a quartet of quintessential Jose Mourinho centre-forwards who have spearheaded his archetypal teams. He belongs in a category with Didier Drogba, Diego Milito and Diego Costa, men who have enabled Mourinho to deploy an increasingly familiar, usually successful formula.
There is the question of whether it needs amending, updating or discarding -- and not merely because Ibrahimovic is injured. Totemic target men have taken the Portuguese's teams forward; now there is the issue of whether fielding one would hold United back. Not so much in the nature of Ibrahimovic's contribution -- he had scored 28 goals by the time his campaign was curtailed in April, including a trophy-winning double in the EFL Cup final, and in a team where no one else mustered a dozen -- but in the sense that football is changing.
The mathematical blueprint Mourinho followed might no longer be valid or, at the least, might have less margin for error. He has spent seven seasons in management when his attack has tended to be led, whether for Chelsea, Inter or United, by one of Drogba, Milito, Costa or Ibrahimovic. In those campaigns, his sides have scored 72, 72, 64, 70, 75, 73 and 54 league goals respectively; in the five seasons when Mourinho sides, whether Chelsea or Inter, reached the 70 barrier, they were crowned champions. The formula is set in stone: concede 35 at most (preferably considerably fewer), end up with a goal difference of at least plus-40 (preferably around plus-50), win plenty of low-scoring games by one- and two-goal margins and exercise complete control rather than needing to run riot.
In one respect, this 54-goal campaign is clearly the outlier. Mourinho's moans about United's inability to take the chances they created are supported by the numbers. Their chance conversion rate of 13 percent was the fourth worst in the Premier League, according to transfermarkt, which places them above only Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Southampton.
Had they joined Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City in recording a conversion rate between 17.6 and 18.5 percent, they would have ended up with Mourinho's normal 70-75 goals. Ibrahimovic's tally of 17 league goals was 11 better than anyone else's, which means that he could be exempted from criticism, but his conversion rate of 14.8 percent was lower than other elite attackers', so there is a case for saying he contributed to the low goal return and litany of home draws. Profligacy was a problem.
But in a season in which United struck just 54 times, each of the top five at least 77 and Chelsea and Tottenham 85 and 86, respectively, is Mourinho's usual game plan, even if executed with rather more precision in front of goal, enough? Because the Premier League had its second-highest goals-per-game average this season. The sport has become more attacking.
Will Mourinho follow suit? The Portuguese can claim that he has already demonstrated such a capacity. His Real Madrid delivered 102, 121 and 103 goals in three La Liga seasons, twice outscoring Barcelona. That is explained in part by the phenomenon that is Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored 120 of those goals himself, but it was not a classic Mourinho side, just as Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain, who had a job-share in attack, are not definitive Mourinho strikers.
Mourinho prefers a focal point and a physical presence in attack. Stripped of Ibrahimovic, whether for the short- or long-term, he faces a decision whether to construct a different sort of team, one that was glimpsed in the 2-0 win over Chelsea and the Europa League semifinals and final. The statistics suggest that Mourinho's sides will score a certain number of goals with his prototypical types in attack -- but no more.
The risk is that United regress without their top scorer, losing the closest thing to a guarantee of goals. The reward is that they could produce a faster, more fluid brand of football with a slicker sort of spearhead, one who is quicker and more comfortable veering out to the flanks and who allows others to advance into the centre-forward's position to produce more of the kind of interchangeable attacks that are in vogue.
That could involve Marcus Rashford, it might entail using Antoine Griezmann as the furthest man forward, or it might offer scope for another prospective signing such as Andrea Belotti. None would be as emblematic of Mourinho's brand of play as Drogba, Milito, Costa and Ibrahimovic; they intimidate less with sheer size, raw aggression or conspicuous displays of arrogance. Yet each might be a more modern style of striker, and if modernity requires 85 goals to win the league, Mourinho has to determine whether a historically successful, 70-goal strategy remains relevant.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.