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Thursday evening’s dramatic extra-time victory over Anderlecht will have almost certainly come at a cost for Manchester United with both Marcos Rojo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic suffering knee injuries that could keep them both out for the remainder of the season.
With the case of the Swedish striker it is an unusual occurrence for him to be injured but with his issue likely to fall anywhere between a hyper-extension of his right knee right through to Anterior Cruciate Ligament damage, it seems unlikely that he will feature too heavily in the club’s final matches this term.
Disaster on paper
On paper this seems like a disaster given how reliant United have been on Ibrahimovic’s goals, yet the last two matches against Chelsea and the Belgian side have given a glimpse of the opportunity Marcus Rashford will be handed.
Jose Mourinho has spoke at length this week detailing just why he has so much trust in the teenager and the academy graduate has repaid that faith with two crucial goals that have set the club on their way to victory both domestically and in the Europa League.
“The players have to pull in my direction; this is why Rashford, despite not scoring for such a long period, has always been in the team, he has been pulling in my direction.
“Because of what Marcus gives us I have total confidence in him, I trust him,” he explained.
Many United supporters have raised concerns about the 19 year old’s prospects under Mourinho but in actual fact he has been a key feature for much of the campaign, just not in his favoured position.
There was a long running joke throughout Arsene Wenger’s glory years at Arsenal that players must do their time on the left wing in order to boost their understanding of all aspects of the sport.
Kolo Toure had a brief stint there while Thierry Henry was positioned there before making the transition to a central striker later in his career in North London.
Rashford has enjoyed such a vital learning experience in this position throughout the 2016/17 season, he has been able to learn from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and develop his game from more than just the sharpshooting finisher he was utilised as throughout his debut campaign.
A more effective creator
It has been easy to see the development within his style as the season has gone.
Whilst his finishing has frustrated supporters and coaches alike, he has become more aware of creating chances and his role in positional play.
There have been a number of occasions this term where the teenager has reached the byline and then delivered a smart pass to a free teammate on the edge of the penalty area.
These situations have often been made possible by a smart Cruyff turn or a burst of pace.
His rabona cross against Anderlecht was an example of his perfect blend of talent and self-belief, despite not scoring goals he has been an invaluable contributor to United’s campaign and both Mourinho and the England international will benefit from this now Ibrahimovic is out.
Rashford dragged Chelsea’s three-man defensive line all over Old Trafford on Sunday and it is likely that other teams won’t be able to live with him in a central position.
Manchester United have struggled for goals and with the qualification for the Champions League on offer on two fronts, a switch to more mobile forwards could help Mourinho’s charges.
Despite his incredible goal haul, Ibrahimovic undoubtedly slows the team’s attacks down and in the Premier League this has been a serious issue as it allows teams who are focused on defending to get everybody back into position.
Rashford up front hands United a threat on the counter-attack, Anderlecht saw this first-hand on Thursday evening as the game headed into extra-time.
They couldn’t handle the English forward’s desire to run both at and in behind them.
Rashford knew when to time these runs and he looks a far better prospect to play in this position than he did at the beginning of the campaign.
Almost perfect handling by Mourinho
Whether you agree with Jose Mourinho’s coaching methods or not is one thing, however his handling of United’s most prized youngster has been almost perfect.
Nobody could have foreseen such an injury to United’s Swedish talisman; however the club are suitably prepared not just to cope in the face of such an absence but also change their style of play for the better and begin to really test teams’ defences.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4
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