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There was an amusing moment after Manchester United’s 1-3 win at Bournemouth on Sunday when, cramped inside one of the Dean Court stands, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Wayne Rooney were asked to present an odd-looking Man of the Match award to defender Eric Bailly.
The Ivorian won all of his headers and won possession back nine times as United strolled to victory on the south coast, warranting all the plaudits he received for a promising Premier League debut.
But Ibrahimović seemed nonplussed, gesturing towards his team-mate.
“I thought it was Wayne” said the Swede.
Bailly may have earned his accolade for a solid display as Jose Mourinho’s defence stymied Bournemouth’s vibrant attack line, but few would have argued had Ibrahimović been asked to hand the bizarre yellow box to his captain.
Impressive alongside Ibra
Rooney, with his position in the line-up yet again facing scrutiny, was impressive as he linked play up effectively behind Ibrahimović.
Rooney completed 90% of his passes in the final third on Sunday and his positional awareness was superb, often popping up in pockets of space to provide options for Daley Blind whose intelligence and quality in building out from the back was a huge factor in a display that has persuaded Mourinho to keep the Dutchman in his squad.
Both players were central to what Mourinho described as “almost the complete performance” in a second half in which Rooney got himself onto the scoresheet, flicking home Anthony Martial’s volley to hand some justification to Mourinho’s immediate conviction that the Englishman is more effective playing in attack.
“Maybe he’s not a striker any more. Maybe he is not a No 9 anymore but he will never, with me, be a No.6. He will never be 50 metres from the goal”, Mourinho said in an early press conference, aiming a sharp dig at his predecessor Louis Van Gaal. “For me he will be a No 9 or a No 10 or a nine-and-a-half, but with me he will never be a No 6 or even a No 8.”
The Portuguese cut a relaxed figure as he reflected on a pleasing opening weekend win for his new team but, looking for a way to place an emphasis on the statement they had just sent out, recited a list of names who didn’t feature in the convincing win in the Bournemouth sunshine.
“When you look at the players who were not on the pitch,” he said, “[Jesse] Lingard, [Marcus] Rashford, [Henrik] Mkhitaryan and Ashley Young, we have a lot.”
Paul Pogba, suspended for the opener after completing his £89 million move from Juventus, wasn’t mentioned but Mourinho will be aware that the rest of the league will be fearing the energy and physical impetus the Frenchman will offer his team once he becomes available.
United will hope that occasion will be on Friday when they welcome Southampton at home but Mourinho will then face a dilemma.
If he is to continue with the Ibrahimović/Rooney link-up that dovetailed so well in last week’s Community Shield victory over Leicester and then down at Bournemouth, in doing so maintaining his favoured 4-2-3-1 system, then it means Pogba starting in midfield and disrupting a Marouane Fellaini/Ander Herrera axis that performed so well at Dean Court.
Herrera’s passing was excellent while Fellaini was solid alongside him, giving Rooney an effective platform in which to shine from an advanced position.
Mourinho will aim to maximise the threat of Pogba’s athleticism, but fielding him in deep midfield will harness the driving runs that make him so dangerous.
Getting his £89 million man may mean switching to a midfield three but that would likely see Rooney, his captain and weekend goal-scorer, missing out.
Rooney, whose header at Bournemouth brought him within 3 goals of Bobby Charlton’s record of all-time highest goal-scorer for the club, may have found his position at Old Trafford under threat given his decreasing goal-threat and positional limbo under Van Gaal.
The 8 he scored for United last term was the first time he had not managed to break 10 goals since joining United 12 years ago and it is clear Mourinho wants to retrieve the attacking threat that has gone absent.
That means playing him closer to goal but with the presence of Young, Lingard and Mkhitaryan, as well as Mata, who has joined Blind in changing Mourinho’s mind over his future, and Martial, it has added intense competition.
For the striker who will become 31 in October and is suffering injuries more frequently, it becomes a welcome situation for the Portuguese who will have to juggle the Europa League and two domestic cups alongside the title he has promised his team will “fight” for.
Ibrahimović, who will be 35 in October, will not play every game and Mourinho has emphasised his influence off the pitch is just as crucial as it will be on it, so Rooney may even find himself returning to a traditional number 9 position on occasion.
Having signed Ibrahimović and with the Swede’s admiration of Rooney evident since he joined, Mourinho will appreciate the importance of experience and his captain, having just been handed a testimonial for 12 years’ service, will be crucial to his plans.
Watching him play a central role to United’s stroll on Sunday would have made the manager’s mood even brighter as the south coast sun beat down.
Pogba will hand Mourinho a powerful forward runner from midfield, something United have been missing for years, but more importantly a different option, more variety to the system Mourinho has been wedded to.
Rooney, who showed encouraging signs back in his natural position of second striker as United got their season underway at Bournemouth, will surely see off any doubts to become integral to whichever system Mourinho opts for.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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