How Ibrahimovic and Willian can bring back the Old Trafford glory days


Having finally been officially announced as Manchester United manager, all eyes are now on who José Mourinho will try to sign to bolster his squad. According to the Guardian, Mourinho is looking at free agent Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who played under him at Inter Milan, and Willian, who played under him at Chelsea. These targets suggest that the Portuguese is not too impressed with United’s current front three. Specifically, Mourinho typically favours a more mature striker than the 18-year-old Marcus Rashford and a different type of wide man to Juan Mata, who he cast out from Chelsea only a couple of years ago.

To understand why Ibrahimovic fits the bill, we can compare his statistics with Rashford’s and Diego Costa’s from 2014/15, when Chelsea won the title under Mourinho. Firstly, a striker in a Mourinho team must be able to win the ball in the air. Costa, in 2014/15, won 1.3 aerial duels per game. Ibrahimovic, this season, won 1.4 per game (2 per game in the Champions League, if we are concerned with Ligue 1’s weakness). Rashford could manage only a disappointing 0.4 per game.

Secondly, Mourinho favours a striker who can contribute to build up play, as well as being able to stick the ball in the net. In the title-winning season at Chelsea, Costa was playing 1.6 key passes per game. This season, Ibrahimovic managed 1.5 key passes per game, 1.2 in the Champions League. Rashford, so far in his Manchester United career, has only contributed 0.5 key passes per game.

Most importantly of all, the Portuguese wants a striker who scores goals. Costa and Ibra’s goals per 90 minutes stand at, respectively, 0.9 and 1.3. This is a very high standard. In comparison, both Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy scored only 0.7 goals per 90 mins this season. And while Rashford hit a moderately impressive 0.5 goals per 90 mins, a closer look brings further cause for concern. Of his 16 shots in the Premier League last season, only 1 was off target. This would suggest that either he is the most accurate finisher of all time, or that this figure is unsustainable. If the latter proved to be the case, we would expect his goals per 90 to drop lower than 0.5, a figure too low to spearhead a title challenge.

The most commonly cited reason for Mourinho’s disenchantment with Juan Mata at Chelsea was his lack of defensive discipline. Yet, the statistics do not completely support this idea. In his half season under Mourinho, Mata was making 1.5 tackles every 90 minutes. Willian, in the title winning season, managed 1.3. Indeed, this season Mata has been the Manchester United player who has covered the furthest distance, while Cesc Fàbregas covered more ground than Willian at Chelsea.

A more convincing explanation, I think, is about the style of wide man which Mourinho prefers. Typically, he will have one winger who can cut inside, able to shoot or pass. At Chelsea, this was Eden Hazard, and at Manchester United it will presumably be Anthony Martial or Memphis Depay. On the other flank, he prefers a player who can beat their man on the outside and find a pass or get a cross in to the box. At Chelsea, this man was Willian, and it looks like it might be him again. In Mourinho’s last full season at Chelsea, Willian completed 2.3 successful dribbles per 90. With Manchester United last season, Mata completed only 0.9 per 90.

Overall, it is easy to see why Mourinho is looking to rework United’s attacking trident in his image. A front three incorporating Ibrahimovic and Willian will be able to challenge for a title as well as appease a fan base disappointed with the monotony of Louis van Gaal’s football.

All statistics from

Article by Toby Lorber @tlorba

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