Niko Kovac and Bayern Munich Were Never Meant to Be

Bayern Munich have been one of the dominant sides of the decade; domestically and on the European stage. For the past 10 years, Bayern have attempted to form a style to keep their dominance in Germany for a sustainable period. It can all traced back to the appointment of Louis Van Gaal, a manager known for having a particular way of playing, that demands a lot from his players in terms of shape and offensive positioning. While Van Gaal did fail in entertaining the fans (something that would repeat in England) and bringing trophies in his second season, he nevertheless planted the seeds for what Bayern would become. He taught the likes of Thomas Muller, Bastien Schweinsteiger and Philip Lahm how possession football should be played.

After Van Gaal’s departure and Jupp Heynckes’ treble success, Bayern Munich landed the most desirable manager in the world: Pep Guardiola. The Spanish genius sought out to do precisely what Van Gaal was asked to do; define a possession-based, style of play for the Champions.

Pep’s time at Bayern was easily the most interesting of his career. He attempted to implement the same template he used at Barcelona. Which later, Guardiola quickly realised wasn’t possible, and changes were needed to be made. The Bundesliga is a league full of teams which can counter-attack with great speed and numbers. Pep was already used to teams trying to beat his Barcelona sides through quick counters, but German clubs were much better at doing this, especially during the rise of Geganpressing. Guardiola seemingly became paranoid, desperate to retain domination, while also keeping his Bayern Munich side defensively solid if a counter was to arise. He did this through the full-backs. Pep was lucky to have David Alaba and Philip Lahm as his primary full-back pairing; two players so comfortable on the ball, they could seamlessly play in midfield, a position the pair have played before. With Bayern having two of the most fantastic wingers in the world in Ribery and Robben dominating the flanks, it gave Guardiola the option to play Alaba and Lahm as half-backs. Most of the ball progression didn’t need to go through the midfield anymore. With Robben and Ribery being two of the best dribblers of the decade, it allowed Guardiola to give them more space to dribble, create and score, instead of the inside forwards he was using at Barcelona. Guardiola’s Bayern was more disciplined and structured than ever before. With the Bundesliga’s lack of competition during Guardiola’s three-year stint with the Bavarians, it allowed him to experiment with different formations, with the Spaniard at one point setting up his team in a 2-3-5, a real throwback formation. While this was impressive on paper, Bayern were already doing this in a lot of their games. The full-backs would come inside, the number 10 and one of the central midfielders (usually Kroos) would push forward alongside Mandzukic, and Robben and Ribery were left as the primary outlet on the wings.

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Guardiola did what his former manager could not; define how Bayern Munich should be for the next decade, with a focus on possession play, a high press and a more traditional striker who can link-up with the forwards, first Mandzukic then Lewandowski. I could go into a lot of depth in terms of Pep’s Bayern, but it was more to explain why Bayern fans have become frustrated since the Spaniard’s departure.

Ancelotti was first, and arguably where the problems began. This isn’t to say that he’s a bad coach, but he isn’t Guardiola. Ancelotti is at his best when he’s given a very talented group of players, that just need a push in the right direction. He’ll usually resolve some of the more apparent problems while making the attack function. His success at Real Madrid and Chelsea showed this, where he was given two fantastic groups of players. In Chelsea’s case, they recently missed out on their first European trophy, while letting their league form slip after Jose Mourinho’s departure. He did the same at Real Madrid and actually made them fun to watch after the frustration that was Jose Mourinho’s final season. Bayern weren’t bad under Ancelotti, but it didn’t feel like they weren’t getting better. He did win the Bundesliga as expected. However, a semi-final defeat in the DFB Pokal to Dortmund and a rather unfortunate defeat to Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions League did show a noticeable downgrade. Ancelotti’s short second season in charge saw them lose to Julien Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim and a rather embarrassing 3-0 defeat to PSG, which saw Ancelotti’s naivety exposed. Nagelsmann at only 29 already looked the more tactically astute manager, in a similar mould to Pep and being a Bavarian himself. He was who Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinze Rummenigge wanted more than anyone else.

The other reason for Ancelotti’s dismissal was man-management. As mentioned, Bayern weren’t getting better, and the team lacked the same edge they had under Pep, with more reliance over the talent Bayern have over the rest of the Bundesliga. The players were generally unhappy with how Ancelotti’s training sessions were so much more laid-back than under Guardiola, with Robben, Ribery, Lewandowski, Hummels and Boateng all particularly unhappy. Reports were surfacing that the players were having secret training sessions behind Ancelotti’s back because they felt they weren’t being pushed enough. The influence Pep has had on this team is clear, and a manager with the same tactical nous and flexibility was needed, to keep Bayern playing in the same way as seen during Guardiola’s tenure, to keep the players happy.

So, why Niko Kovac? It’s the question that has perplexed me for nearly a year now, and after looking into it for a while, I finally figured that out. Jupp Heynckes returned to the club once again, and Bayern went back to their best. They were so good that Uli Hoeness desperately tried to convince him to stay on. Heynckes, understandably, said this was going to be the last time he managed a club, leaving Bayern to look at other options, to help continue the foundation that Pep established.

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Julien Nagelsmann was the first name on their list, but Red Bull were a step ahead of them, convincing Nagelsmann to move to Leipzig instead of Munich. Red Bull are ran so well, with some of the best talents in Germany to work with. This must have been a more exciting project for Nagelsmann than managing a rather difficult Bayern team. Thomas Tuchel was next on their list. Like Nagelsmann, Tuchel is a Bavarian and was clearly interested in the job. Yet, Bayern were taking too long in approaching the former Dortmund manager, leaving Paris Saint-Germain with an opening to take Tuchel from right under Bayern’s noses.

Bayern seemingly chose Kovac because that’s all they were left with. His CV wasn’t nearly as impressive as Tuchel or Nagelsmann’s. Kovac did help keep Frankfurt in the Bundesliga in his first season, to then finishing 11th and 8th and taking Frankfurt to two consecutive Pokal finals, winning his second against his future employers. This was an impressive feat, but the big question was could he effectively manage the best team in Germany and a group of players with incredibly high standards. At Frankfurt, Kovac was more focused on how to set his side up defensively and work on off the ball positioning. Kovac would need to change this, since Bayern are the most dominant side in the Bundesliga in terms of possession and shots, off the ball work wasn’t a priority. It’s where Kovac differs from Tuchel and Nagelsmann; two coaches who have shown the ability to build a cohesive and robust attack, with Dortmund and Hoffenheim being two of the best attacking sides during their respective reigns. Convincing the Bayern fans and board members that he was the right fit for Bayern was going to be extremely difficult.

Kovac’s final game in charge, a 5-1 defeat to Frankfurt, wasn’t the first poor performance we saw from his Bayern Munich side. In fact, it was seen from the beginning of his reign. Kovac had a very mixed start to his tenure. They began dropping points, failing to look comfortable in the final third. After winning their first 4 games of the season, they dropped points in 3 consecutive games, and the same problem can be seen in these games: a lack of quality chances. Their 2-0 defeat to Hertha Berlin perfectly showcases Kovac’s most significant issue when it comes to Bayern on the pitch. While Bayern did dominate the game, their shot map was a mess:

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Bayern just seemed to lack an attacking plan under Kovac, relying more on the experience of a title-winning team full of winners than his own ability to coach. This three-game stretch displayed how poor Bayern was at creating high-quality chances compared to the same team under Pep or even Ancelotti’s. His overreliance on Lewandowski was becoming more apparent as the match days were rolling by. The Polish marksman was the main thing keeping Bayern’s attack ticking, with Lewandowski not only winning the golden boot in the Bundesliga with 22 goals but also assisted 7. He created over a chance per 90, and his sheer quality not only kept Bayern as one of the best attacking sides in Germany but got a lot out of other players in the team. I find it highly unlikely that Gnabry would have finished with his impressive goal tally last season, if it wasn’t for Lewandowski dragging defenders with him, and dropping deep to create space.

Der Klassiker was by far lowest point for Kovac in his debut season, for perfectly exhibiting everything wrong with Bayern’s attack. Bayern struggled against their rivals for the first time in years. Dortmund were riding high at this point, looking unstoppable with Sancho, Reus and Alcacer having fantastic starts to the season. But this is a fixture where Bayern have always turned up, with their last defeat coming in 2016, where they were somewhat unlucky to lose. This time was different. Bayern did get an early lead thanks to Lewandowski and went on to have a positive first half, with Burki tested through efforts from Ribery and Gnabry. Bayern were dominant and played some of their best football of the season. But Dortmund’s character and determination showed, with Reus scoring two and Alcacer getting the winner, to put Dortmund in the driving seat for the title.

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Bayern were shambolic in the second half by their standards, only mustering Lewandowski’s goal and a few half chances from Ribery and Muller. Dortmund looked like they wanted it more, creating countless opportunities and could have easily won that game by more. Even after Alcacer’s goal, Bayern still had 18 minutes to get an equaliser, yet had no ideas in achieving that, neither did Kovac. Favre reacted to his team’s lack of goals by introducing Mahmoud Dahoud to add some energy in midfield and Paco Alcacer, one of the best bench options around. Kovac, on the other hand, reacted by bringing on Renato Sanches for Serge Gnabry, one of the only players with pace in the team and Sandro Wagner, a player who doesn’t add anything different to what Lewandowski can do. It was so uninspiring, especially when James Rodriguez was on the bench. It still surprises me that Kovac managed to last longer than that defeat.

However, something changed in Bayern’s form. After that defeat to Dortmund and a subsequent draw to Dusseldorf, The Bavarians suddenly awoke from their 6-month slumber, and turned into the ‘Super Bayern’ we know and, at least, admire. From December 1st to the end of the season, Bayern only dropped 9 points, losing a single game. This run included scoring 5 goals or more against Meinz, Gladbach, Frankfurt, Wolfsburg and Dortmund.

This improved form and title win would make you believe that Kovac had turned it all around, but that still wasn’t the case. Two toothless and rather abject performances in the Champions League against Liverpool showed Bayern at their worst in Europe since their demolition by the hands of Real Madrid in 2014. The Bundesliga Champions failed to register a shot on target during their 0-0 draw at Anfield, placing them in a position where they just needed to win at the Allianz. The problem with treating your away legs as damage control means there is even more pressure on you to win at home than before, and if your opponent does manage to score in your own back yard, it makes that mountain even steeper. Kovac’s approach here screamed naivety. Liverpool is one of the best teams in Europe, and assuming they can’t score at the Allianz is ridiculous. The best teams in European competitions know how to win both home and away. This remarkably unambitious approach has been used and failed by many coaches. Mourinho did it with Manchester United during a round of 16 encounter with Sevilla, where they earned a goalless draw in Seville, only to lose the return leg in one of Mourinho’s worst games as a manager. Valverde did the same against Roma in 2018 and against eventual champions Liverpool last season, hoping a strong home victory would be enough to secure the tie. It’s ignorant and frustrating to see coaches still see the away leg as a game where keeping a clean sheet is all that matters.

Their defeat at the Allianz to Liverpool was the final straw for many Bayern fans, with the most worrying element of the loss being how far behind Bayern looked compared to Klopp’s team. Bayern lacked the same intensity we saw under Pep and were by far the second-best team in both legs. The gap between Jurgen Klopp and Niko Kovac was enormous at this stage. Even with Bayern’s improvement in the league, it was a huge step back in terms of Kovac being the right man for the job.

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Even Bayern’s change of form during the second half of the season did raise some doubts. Did Kovac suddenly get the players on his side with his approach being implemented on the pitch, or did the players suddenly remember they are supposed to be the Champions and need to prove that for their own reputations? The latter seems to be accurate, with reports surfacing that the Bayern players agreed to do everything to ensure they remained the Bundesliga holders.

Kovac’s biggest crime as Bayern coach was easily the collapse in his relationship with Thomas Muller. Personally, I do not like Muller at all. While he is clearly a talented player, he is not at the level to have as much power at Bayern Munich as he does. Muller commands a lot of influence in the dressing room and was one of the leading figures in Ancelotti’s dismissal, not satisfied with his lack of game time. The former Milan coach did actually play Muller a lot during his first season, but Bayern decided to add one of the best number 10’s in the world, with James Rodriguez arriving on loan. It was the first time Muller faced apparent competition in the squad, which he didn’t like. He then does what he usually does, and talks to reporters, which lead to more pressure on Ancelotti. The point is as Bayern coach, you should never leave Muller out of your first-team plans. The World Cup winner has recently been forced out of the national team by Joachim Low, a decision I respect and appreciate.

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So just like Rodriguez’s arrival, Muller was again unhappy to see himself dropped after Philippe Coutinho arrived on loan; an incredibly talented player who was an improvement over the ageing Muller. Kovac even admitted that he wouldn’t field Countinho and Muller together because it would be “too attacking.” It was evident by the start that Coutinho had to the season, that he would be preferred, looking more like the player we all adored watching at Liverpool. Coutinho clearly enjoyed working with Kovac, saying, “He is a top coach and a great guy who likes to work hard.” Coutinho’s presence in the side seemed to be an attempt by Kovac to push his own authority, but he clearly lost. Kovac even referred to Muller as “emergency nail,” showing just how Kovac was ready to change the norm in Munich. Kovac did later backtrack on this comment, which says everything you need to know about Muller’s influence. During Van Gaal tenure as Bayern coach, he famously said “Muller always plays,” a statement that rings forever true as the years go by. Ancelotti was sacked for not playing Muller, and Kovac is another to attempt to cross the German forward, only to lose the battle, and his job.

I can’t really blame Kovac for resigning. Even if he didn’t, there was a high chance he was going to be sacked. A squad relying more on individual quality than a tactical blueprint, taking Bayern Munich from the most dominant team in Germany to one that could be toppled and falling out with key members of the squad. I do genuinely sympathise with the situation Kovac was in, but the Bayern job, like many big club jobs, is different. There are different standards, players have higher demands in terms of what the coach should be doing, and they expect a certain level to be playing at. I still believe Kovac isn’t a bad coach. It’s just his style of coaching isn’t suited for a club of Bayern’s expectations. He arrived as the third choice option. He was always going to struggle to win over the fans, the players and the board. Kovac and Bayern were so different that it’s hard even to think that this was going to work in the long term. This was an appointment that felt wrong from the beginning, and even if I did hope he would find his feet in this massive job, it’s clear that this was never going to work out.

 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Manchester United: A Perfect Pair

I’ve been a Manchester United fan my whole life and by far my favourite season to follow was the 2016/17 season. While I remember watching the club lift the Champions League in Moscow and failing to beat Barcelona a year later, I began losing interest in the sport for a few years. Thankfully that loss of interest occurred during the Moyes era, which is why that point of time doesn’t hurt as much as it hurts other fans. My fascination with football returned with Van Gaal’s arrival. It felt like a fresh start and a chance to return to the sport I, like many young kids, dreamed of playing.

Moyes was seen as a safe option when he was appointed. A manager who was successful with Everton in keeping them competitive for over a decade. He managed to get the best out of middling players who seen as not good enough for their previous club or too much of a risk for bigger clubs. He was Premier League proven and was handpicked by Sir Alex Ferguson as his successor, but a combination of issues led to the Scotsman being sacked after only 8 months in charge.

The mistakes in the summer of 2013 are well documented. United decided to give Moyes a six-year contract with the expectations being long term success. Moyes was indeed out of his depth at United. Home records broken, humiliating defeats by the hands of arch-rivals Liverpool and Manchester City and a style of football that was seen as ineffective, to say the least. Moyes is predominately to blame for that horrendous season, but criticism has to be given to Sir Alex and the Chief Executive. Ferguson was desperate to win one more title before his impending retirement, which meant many short term decisions were made so he could achieve that. The signing of Robin Van Persie was essential to that 20th title. It gave United the best striker in the league during his best years, and it weakened a direct rival. While his signing was influential, it wasn’t as needed as many like to believe. Manchester City only managed to score 4 more goals than United in the previous season, it was in defence where United saw problems. Ferdinand and Vidic were still playing regularly during a time where they didn’t possess the speed to keep up with the best forwards in the league. Fergie was desperate for that final title, and history has proven that buying a striker is a much quicker route to success than buying a defender. Ferguson always looked at the future at United and always kept an eye on his players, to ensure they were moved on at the right time. So many of these players needed to be replaced years before Moyes’s arrival, but short term success was seen as more important.

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It brings us on to that infamous summer of 2013. This was Ed Woodward’s first summer in charge at Manchester United, and as mentioned regarding the age of some players, it was vital that it was done right. Woodward was looking to stamp his mark at the club through acquiring some immense talent. The six players who were heavily linked to the Red Devils were Gareth Bale, Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara, Ander Herrera, Sami Khedira and Leighton Baines. The likeliness of United even convincing Bale and Alcantara to join them was highly unlikely with the former destined to join Madrid and the latter wanting to play under Pep Guardiola. Woodward’s ambition can be credited, but realism was needed in this situation. It’s the first of so many examples of Woodward desperate for the big names, players who arrive from big clubs and could increase shirt sales, instead of choosing the more realistic offer. It meant that United’s disastrous summer ended with the signing of Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini. He arrived with little fan fair and seemed to only be signed because United needed at least one signing. Fellaini struggled under Moyes because he was played usually as a defensive midfielder, a position he has never played before. It was the only place where he could play since Rooney, and Van Persie both cemented their place as the starting forwards. Fellaini’s strength is as a more direct option for the attack, working well off the bench and not as starting central midfielder, He doesn’t possess the mobility or the awareness to cover in that area. Juan Mata arrived in the following January, and while he is a very gifted player, his signing emphasised the scattergun approach Woodward was using. There isn’t a world where Juan Mata and Fellaini can play to both their strengths in the same system for the reason that the pair have contrasting styles. One is a small, intelligent playmaker while the other is a battering ram, a way to exploit oppositions who are weak in the air.

United ended the Moyes era by finishing seventh without a manager and with a squad full of players who needed to be replaced. The following summer saw Woodward do a lot of things right. Van Gaal was signed on the 19th of May, meaning there wouldn’t be any issues regarding the future of the club and could continue with preseason as usual. The signings from the summer of 2014 had some highlights. A number of players at the club like Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, Hernandez, Welbeck, Cleverley all departed the club. This was long overdue and it was signalling the end of United’s dominance at the beginning of the century and a chance to move on. The Red Devils brought in Luke Shaw, arguably the most promising full back in the country for a record fee. Ander Herrera was brought after his transfer failing to be finalised the previous summer. Daily Blind arrived to give depth at both full back and central midfield and Rojo was a much-needed addition at centre half.

While they were seen as sensible moves, Woodward couldn’t resist his urge to make the headlines. United broke the British transfer record to bring Champions League winner Angel Di Maria to the club. The Argentine reached 3 finals that year with his performance in the Champions League final earning him the Man of the Match over the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale. He is a fantastic player who would offer pace, creativity and elite dribbling who could push United closer the Manchester City and Chelsea. The other galactico who arrived that summer was Radamel Falcao. The Columbian was one of the deadliest forwards in Europe at the time of his arrival. He was signed on loan with an option to buy due to his injury record and would give United another option. United sold both Chicarito and Welbeck that summer, leaving them low on options with Van Persie struggling with consistent injuries and Rooney beginning to show his age. These were two big names that added on top of the solid bunch of signings that would improve the squad. 

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Ironically, the signings who succeeded were the players who didn’t have high expectations. Ander Herrera was fantastic whenever he played in midfield, giving United a player who could play that box to box role and contribute in the final third. In his debut season, Herrera scored 6 and assisted 4 in 19 starts, showing his value to the side. He also was second in the team for tackles per game with 3, with only Valencia ahead of him. He gave a lot to the side, which needed a player who could do a bit of everything. Throughout his career at United, he had the drive to succeed at the club, which other players didn’t. Di Maria was the most anticipated signing and while he did contribute to 13 goals for a side where the manager wasn’t selecting him at the tail end of the season. He ended his time at United after only a season, with his departure clouded with distaste from the fans after refusing to join the rest of the team for preseason. At least that fantastic goal against Leicester will be remembered fondly. Falcao was arguably more disappointing, with the Columbian only scoring 4 goals. He hadn’t looked the same player since an ACL injury that forced him to miss the 2014 World Cup.

After finishing 4th and looked particularly underwhelming in doing so, United looked to the transfer market to fix the problems. Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Matteo Darmian, Sergio Romero and Anthony Martial. While sensible signings, they weren’t the level of signings that United needed. The other clear issue was Louis Van Gaal. The Dutchman is a descendant of the Cruyffian school of football. There are either two ways you can take Cruyff’s teachings, either taking pressing and free-flowing approach, as seen with Guardiola or Rijkaard, or you can take the more systemic and organised routes of the system and develop them further, think Arigo Saachi at Milan. Van Gaal took the latter, playing a brand of football that while protected a defence that still featured players who simply weren’t good enough, it made United lack any sort of spark and attacking flair. Five games finished 0-0 in Van Gaal’s final season just highlighting how United struggled to score goals throughout the season. It meant that arguably United’s most exciting signing from the 2015 summer window, Memphis Depay, was destined to fail. Van Gaal demands all of his players to track back and help on the defensive end, something that Depay isn’t good at doing. The winger’s strengths are in attack. He always wants the ball played to his feet, so he can cut inside on his stronger right foot. He is a player who feeds on confidence, and when he was consistently dropped after poor displays, it made it difficult for Depay to succeed.

United fans couldn’t stand watching Van Gaal’s United for another season, and while the Dutchman brought home an FA Cup, it wasn’t enough. A season where United scored only 49 goals, the second lowest in the top 10. Van Gaal’s restrictive football made it nearly impossible to deal with sides that played in a deep block. Rashford’s end season emergence helped in giving Van Gaal a fast and aggressive forward who was scoring with nearly every shot, but a season full of dire performances made it difficult to justify keeping the former Barcelona manager.

One might ask what does all of this have to do with Zlatan Ibrahimovic? The short term history of how United consistently struggled in the transfer market was to highlight just how significant of a signing Ibrahimovic was to United, and especially for Ed Woodward. His first summer was full of targets that didn’t want to join the club. His second was a mix of shirt sellers and squad players but was a mess in regards to where they all fitted in. The third summer was a failure in how those signings performed in their debut season, with Anthony Martial the only player even remotely a success. Woodward needed to smash his first summer transfer window with Jose Mourinho, with every signing being first team starters.

The summer of 2016 is still the only transfer window where I’d consider Woodward to be successful in recruitment. They fixed every glaring issue in the squad. They added a young promising defender in Eric Bailly who was capable of playing the ball out from the back and added much-needed pace in defence. Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrived for £27 million to add creativity in the final third. The Armenian was voted the player of the season in the Bundesliga and was an essential signing to boost United’s goals and chance creation. United even went a step further in putting their names on the headlines, with the record Premier League winners breaking the transfer record to bring Paul Pogba back to the club. The Frenchman could add an inventiveness to the midfield and offers a player with a unique skill set that is still hard to match. They were all great signings, but the icing on the cake was easily Zlatan’s arrival.

The Swedish forward was everything United needed on and off the pitch. He a huge personality and possesses the arrogance and hunger for that United have been in itching for since Sir Alex’s departure. From a young age, Zlatan has always had an ego the size of a mountain. From refusing to do auditions for Arsene Wenger at youth level to only agreeing to remain in Paris if the club built him a statue. He is a man who demanded your attention, which younger players could look towards as a role model for the player they should be thriving to be. While many United fans were excited to see a world class forward arrive at the club, opposition fans had their doubts. “He’s only scored in a farmers league” or “he’s past it.” We all heard these criticisms against Ibrahimovic, but both the player and manager weren’t worried. “Zlatan needs no introduction. The statistics speak for themselves,” said Mourinho on his arrival, and he was right. Ibrahimovic had arrived at United after a fantastic final season with Paris Saint-Germain, in which he scored 50 goals in 51 games, 38 of those in Ligue 1, a club record. It was the first time United signed a European superstar striker since Van Nistelrooy, a fantastic poacher but wasn’t effective in linking others into play. Ibrahimovic was the opposite of the Dutchman, with the Swede constantly dropping deep to play as a number nine and a half. His arrogance and personality were personified in how often he didn’t like to remain in a forward position, preferably moving to where the cameras were focused. Ibrahimovic was one of the very few superstars playing in the game, a quality he showed very early on in his United career. His first appearance for the club was in a preseason game against Galatasaray, in which he scored an overhead kick in the 4th minute of the game. While it wasn’t a vintage goal, with the forward’s connection with the ball being imperfect, to say the least, however, the ambition is worth praise.

Zlatan began his United career by showing all of his best qualities. He scored a last minute header against Leicester to win the Community Shield for the club, towering over Wes Morgan, one of the best defenders in the previous season, with ease. His giant character was both literal and metaphorical in this case. He didn’t have the constant effect many expected him to have, but he still managed to appear for the most critical moments. While his first competitive game showed his love for the big moments, his second showed his star quality. United were on track for a straightforward win away to Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth with goals from Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney, the game was sealed through the long strike from Ibrahimovic. He simply picked up the ball and scored from a distance United fans were not used to seeing a goal out of nothing like that. It wasn’t the same structured and planned attacks we were used to seeing under Van Gaal. It was the first change of ideas, from Van Gaal’s Cruyffian roots to a more individualistic approach to scoring goals, and Zlatan was the centrepiece. Ibrahimovic went on to score 10 in his first 20 games, an impressive return for his first season in English football and for a side who were still in transition.

Ibrahimovic was a shot machine during his time for United. This isn’t exactly a quality that is stand out for a United player to possess, with Rooney, Ronaldo and Van Persie all taking a lot of shots during their spells at the club. It doesn’t take away from the fact that the Swede was a terrifying forward to face. He was taking over 4 shots a game, an amount no other United player has managed to beat since his only full season at the club. Any player can take a high volume of shots, but Ibrahimovic showed himself to be a lethal finisher from wherever he was shooting from. His xG showed this, and according to Understat, he overperformed his expected goals by 3, and when going through his goals again, it shows. His fantastic chip against Everton that so nearly didn’t go over the line, his low ranged strikes finding their way past the keeper and some fortunate strikes through deflections, his goal threat was undeniable. Ibrahimovic’s knack for scoring goals from everywhere shows from his dominance in the air. Out of the 17 goals he scored in the Premier League, 4 were headers. His strength will always be with the ball at his feet, but his aerial threat was arguably the most threatening of a striker in the league.

While his image has a selfish and arrogant player were well known, he sure didn’t show it on the pitch. Ibrahimovic was an excellent link man for the rest of the players in the team. It was an important inclusion in his skillset. Like his time at Paris Saint-Germain, he helped bring other talented attackers into the fray. In France, it was Cavani, Lavezzi, Di Maria and Lucas Moura and at United, he had Rooney, Rashford, Lingard, Martial, Mata and Mkhitaryan. While not being given the same experienced scorers as he had in Paris, there were still fantastic talents at the club that needed space to get the goals. Zlatan was an excellent creator throughout his time at United, assisting some of the vital goals during Mourinho’s debut season, with the highlight being a magnificent cross for Mkhitaryan to finish with a spectacular scorpion kick (even though the Armenian was offside). He liked to find space on the right side and for a good reason. United would usually play either Mata, Lingard or Mkhitaryan on that side, with the three players preferring to come inside due to their history as number 10’s. Ibrahimovic would find space on the far side to help keep the width and use his excellent eye for a pass to find his teammates in the box. His drive to contribute to goals, whether scoring or assisting, was what made him such a lethal player.

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The player he sparked the best on and off the pitch relationship with was easily Paul Pogba. The Frenchman arrived for a record fee, and the pressure on him was indescribable. Every single thing Pogba did was going to be scrutinised, and it made it very difficult for him to play his game to the same effect as he did at Juventus. While his relationship with Jesse Lingard was always strong, he grew to form a formidable partnership with Ibrahimovic. While one was 11 years older than the other, they were both so similar, prominent personalities with love for entertainment through their talents. Pogba was continually looking to send long balls for Ibrahimovic to run to and regularly resulted in goals. In a tight game at Selhurst Park, it took United’s two most prominent players to find the victory. During the final minutes of the match, Pogba had the composure to send a delightful ball to the feet of Ibrahimovic, who scored with a powerful shot into the side-netting. The highlight of their relationship was an FA Cup game against Blackburn Rovers. United were left with the possibility of facing a replay in the competition until Mourinho decided to play his aces. Pogba and Ibrahimovic came on as second-half substitutes and their class shined, with Pogba sending a ball through the Blackburn defence, to give his teammate a simple finish. It was by far Pogba’s best season for United, and it was thanks to Ibrahimovic being his perfect partner in attack.

By far his best performance for United came in the EFL Cup final. It was the club’s first chance to win some silverware under Mourinho (not including the Community Shield) and it was a game defined by a brilliant performance from United’s superstar. Ibrahimovic scored a free kick in the first half, before putting United back in the lead right in the dying minutes of the game, with a fine header from a Herrera cross. This was a game truly won by the former Milan forward and he seemed to cherish the responsibility on the pitch. This was one of the reasons why he was brought to the club, to perform on the biggest stage and push United over the line when they needed a shove.

While the good cannot be argued, he still managed to attract plenty of controversy during his short stint in England. The most infamous being his confrontation with Bournemouth defender Tyrone Mings. It was an aggressive game for United in their second fixture against the Cherries. Mings was tightly marking Ibrahimovic throughout the game which seemed to frustrate United’s star striker, to the point where Ibrahimovic was seen throwing Mings to the ground in a show of anger. Things became more heated when Mings stepped on Zlatan’s head, resulting in Zlatan lashing out for a final time, by elbowing Mings during a United corner. With the pair failing to be appropriately booked for their behaviour, The FA quickly punished them, with Ibrahimovic facing a 3 match ban and Mings facing 4. While a moment of madness can sometimes be excused, the childish manner in which Ibrahimovic acted was inexcusable.

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It does move on to another problem with the Swede, being his finishing. I did recently compliment his ability to score from anywhere, and while that is still true, there were a lot of chances Ibrahimovic should have put away yet failed to do so. Out of all forwards in the Premier League, no one missed more chances than the current LA Galaxy forward with 18. This isn’t to diminish his ability as a forward at all. One of the players behind is Sergio Aguero, who is seen as one of the best forwards in the history of the league, yet missed 13 big chances. The issue arises when looking at the chances in isolation and seeing how frustrating he was at times. A penalty miss against Bournemouth, a huge miss at Anfield after a lovely pass from Paul Pogba and a powerful shot aimed directly at Heaton during United’s 0-0 draw at home to Burnley are the few stand out chances he failed to convert.

His United career was cut short after a serious injury suffered in the Europa League quarter-final second leg against Anderlecht, after landing awkwardly on his knee. It was a painful way to end a fantastic debut season. It meant United were to do without their star Swede for the remainder of the season, missing the rest of United’s winning Europa League campaign and some key clashes with Tottenham and Arsenal. While United were a lesser side without him, with Rashford playing as the starting striker, it did highlight one other flaw with playing Ibrahimovic. United couldn’t be as tactically flexible with him in the side. Ironically, United’s most impressive performances during that season, a 2-0 home win over champions Chelsea and a tactical masterclass in the Europa League final, helping United secure a 2-0 win over a young Ajax side. Both games saw Mourinho at his best, using Herrera to man-mark Hazard throughout the game, never leaving the Belgian’s side during the game. While that is a task that could have been achieved with Ibrahimovic, the performance of Marcus Rashford was something that couldn’t have been replicated. Rashford’s raw pace and ability to run the channels made it difficult to see Zlatan do the same thing. United’s young prospect kept constant pressure on Chelsea’s back line and made it difficult for them to effectively build from the back. Ibrahimovic came on as a late substitution, displaying how he was not needed for this victory. Their win over Ajax in the Europa League final was even more impressive, with United playing an extremely direct style, using Fellaini to help quickly transition the ball into the final. The Belgian won 14 aerial duels in this game, showing his importance to United’s first Europa League trophy.

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Unfortunately, Ibrahimovic’s time at United didn’t end with the same shining spotlight as it began. He was allowed to remain at the club for the treatment of his injury and was given a new contract at the end of August. It was made clear Mourinho was not going to use him as frequently as he was used during his first season, with Lukaku giving a younger and pacier forward for a large sum of money. It meant we only saw Ibrahimovic briefly during his final few months at the club, with the spotlight now on Lukaku. One of his most memorable performances was in a disappointing draw at home to Burnley. Ibrahimovic was taken off at halftime for Jesse Lingard, who scored both goals for United. Ibrahimovic couldn’t play with Lukaku in the same team. Both were not mobile enough and it meant a lack of pressure from the forwards. It was the last notable games that Zlatan played for United, until his departure for LA Galaxy in the following January, where he has gone on to score bundles of goals. It was his chance to spread his name to a country that was still in need of quality in the league.

It was a sad way to end such a perfect match. Since Woodward arrived, he was desperate to bring in a true superstar, a player who could sell shirts and show how United were still a European force. After failed attempts to get a marquee signing in his first summer and failing with Di Maria and Falcao in his second, it seemed as if Woodward wasn’t going to get that big name he wanted. Ibrahimovic was the perfect player for Woodward.  A player to show United’s ambitions and the club he wanted them to be. A name known across Europe and could be the push United needed on the short term, similar to when Cantona arrived. He is arguably United’s greatest signing of the decade but it’s just a shame we couldn’t see more of him.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Ander Herrera and Improving PSG

With Paris crashing out of Europe in the round of 16 for a third time in a row, questions are going to be asked. What makes this different to the previous eliminations is who they lost to. While losing to Barcelona thanks to controversial refereeing decisions, followed by a defeat to the eventual champions Real Madrid the following year are all understandable, losing to a weakened Manchester United side has no excuse. While Tuchel was unable to choose Neymar, Cavani or Rabiot, his team was still strong enough to progress past a Manchester United side which were injury struck. Manchester United were the first team in the history of the Champions League to overcome a two goal defeat in the home leg to progress to the second round. It’s an embarrassing fact for PSG to face. I’ve already criticised the Ligue 1 champions plenty of times, and for good reason, but it seems this summer they are eager to fix these problems. While their full back areas are in desperate need of surgery, their midfield is in need of depth. With Manchester United failing to secure contracts with key players, it’s given Paris the chance to steal one of their key midfielders in Ander Herrera. Let’s look to see how he can improve PSG.

Herrera has had a very up and down time in Manchester. Primarily used as a squad player under Van Gaal, he did have a solid impact in his two years under the Dutchman. In his first season, he managed to contribute to 10 goals in 17 games, a solid output from a central midfielder. In a midfield consisting of an ageing Michael Carrick and an immobile Fellaini, he added energy and some needed bite to the midfield. While his game time didn’t improve in Van Gaal’s final season, it was the arrival of Jose Mourinho that truly brought the best out of the Spaniard. With Mourinho desperately searching for a player to partner Paul Pogba, Herrera was by far the best. His work rate and reading of the game was unrivalled in the squad, and gave the perfect balance to his french midfield partner. Their partnership brought the best out of each other, with Herrera’s huge 5.3 tackles and interceptions protecting a fragile defence. Herrera is one of the few players in the Premier League who understands how to take advantage of the rules of the game. It’s a common consensus that every Premier League fan hates Herrera, except United fans. He knows the dark arts of the game, like you see from the Catenaccio sides from the sixties. He will take a yellow card for the team, if it helps stop an opposition attack. He will always stay on the ground for longer than needed, and harass referees to help get the decision to go his way. While many authentic football fans do not like this side of the game, winning teams are built with players like Herrera. A combination of huge defensive work and adding that extra bite to midfield is perfect when you want to hold onto a lead near the end of the game, and to help disrupt more possession based sides. PSG’s midfield has missed that energy and aggression since the departure of Blaise Matuidi.

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So what are the issues with the Spaniard? He doesn’t offer enough in the attacking front. It’s strange to see a player who blossomed as an attacking midfielder under Marcelo Bielsa to have a lack of attacking output. Herrera’s drop off in the final third is massive from his final season for Bilbao. His key passes, shots per game and dribbles have all halved since then. While this could be down to a change in role, which is true. He isn’t relied on in an attacking sense anymore, thanks to the dominance of Paul Pogba, but the problem comes when he has to be relied. When Pogba suffered a short term injury during Mourinho’s second season, Herrera replaced him in a 4-2-3-1, playing alongside Matic. The Serbian couldn’t offer anything on the attacking front, and it was up Herrera to bring something to the midfield. United truly struggled during this period, with a stale draw at Anfield, a loss to Chelsea and an embarrassing lost to Huddersfield. Pogba was huge blow and Herrera just couldn’t add the same flair and arrogance as his teammate. It wasn’t a surprise as soon as Pogba came back, United beat a gritty Newcastle side 4-1.

So what would Herrera add to this side? As mentioned they are lacking in midfield depth. They have been forced to play Dani Alves and Marquinhos in that position because they are truly lacking options. Herrera would add a physical and defensive presence to a midfield that has looked shaky at times. It’s a team full of superstars, but having a player who isn’t afraid of doing the hard yards is always needed to succeed. As the famous Zidane quote goes when Makalele was sold to Chelsea. “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Marcus Rashford and Fulfilling Potential

There’s always been a question on when do players hit their peak, but the problem is it’s a question with not a single answer. Certain players hit their peak at an extremely young age, similar to how Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney are seen as players who never aged as well as many wished, but in reality were at their best in their early twenties. It can work the other way too, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic not showing his best until he was in his thirties. It’s not to say these players didn’t play a role before or after their best years, but they will be remembered for the days where they were unbeatable on the pitch.

In discussion of players hitting their peak, Marcus Rashford is the player who we will be looking at today. The Englishman has been a key member of United’s squad since his breakthrough back in 2016. In a season that consisted of a lack of goals, Rashford coming into the scoring with nearly every shot he was taking was just perfect to see, even if it was not sustainable. His time under Mourinho can be difficult to describe. Some of his strengths truly started to blossom. He showed himself to be a very versatile forward, being able to put in good performances playing on either wing or as a central striker. His strength and power were improving every week, and add that to player who already had pace to burn, it built a recipe for a player with the physique to succeed at the top. While his new found versatility was a good asset, it was seen as block to halt his progression. Mourinho’s lack of trust in Rashford to lead the line for his side meant his chances to play as the number 9 were very limited. He couldn’t learn how to play in his preferred position because he wasn’t as big as Zlatan and Lukaku. It meant that when he was one on one with the goalkeeper, multiple times he would make the wrong decision. The moment that springs to mind would be United’s 2-2 draw to Leicester in the 2017/18 season. It was Rashford up against Schmeichel, and seemed to not know what he wanted to do, and he ended up wasting a chance, taking too long to make a decision. When Mourinho’s United collapsed as expected, Rashford was one of the few players to keep any semblance of a good name, and he continued and even improved on that when Solskjaer arrived. Rashford finally started to fulfill that potential. In the first couple of months of Ole’s reign, Rashford seemed to go out on that pitch with a point to prove. The forward went out on that pitch with a point to prove, to show that he is ready to become the first choice. Rashford’s shot numbers finally started reaching elite levels, with the FA Cup winner hitting 5 shots in many games. His shot locations could definitely improve, but it’s showing a desire to score that he seemed to not have. He was the first player to truly get what Solskjaer was trying to implement, and showed the rest of the league what this United team could be. He combined that excellent finishing from his time under Louis Van Gaal, with the added physique from his time under Mourinho, to make a striker who finally showed just why his old Dutch manager put him in the first team. He’s now taking 3.1 shots per 90 (it would be much if his time under Mourinho was discounted) and is also creating 1.3 chances per 90. Rashford is on a respectable 10 goals in the league, but would be higher if he positive runs were rewarded. Rashford is great at finding space to exploit, and his first thought is always to attack.

However his good form was put to a halt thanks to an ankle injury against Manchester United’s biggest rivals, Liverpool. The forward hasn’t looked the same since, with that risk and energy not being an ever present. Even when looking at United’s historic comeback against PSG, Rashford had a bad game. While he did score the winning penalty, it was clear that he was still struggling with that injury, and it meant that United did miss some great chances to seal the game early. His decision making is still a bit of a concern. While he is fantastic at getting into goal scoring positions, he will occasionally make the incorrect decision. In the first couple of minutes at the Nou Camp, Rashford had a chance to put United back in the game, yet decided to try and lob the keeper, ending with the ball going over the crossbar. It’s very clear where he needs to improve, but those are elements he can improve on over time. Rashford has the blueprint to succeed at the top level, and for now he needs that brake over the summer, to get back to full fitness and show the world next season why Solskjaer trusted him so much at the beginning of his reign.