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Why Marcos Rojo’s Injury presents a bigger problem to Manchester United than Ibrahimović’s

Manchester United’s 2-1 extra-time victory over Anderlecht on Thursday came at some cost to manager José Mourinho. He suffered injuries to two of his key players, which may cost them as they try to negotiate two different paths back into the Champions League. Top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimović has been ruled out for the season, and may never feature for the club again. Marcos Rojo’s injury, however, might be the one that damages United’s chances of returning to Europe’s Premier competition.

The Zlatan Factor

There is no doubt that Ibrahimović has been an outstanding success since swapping Paris for Manchester last summer. To score 28 goals in your first season in England is a great achievement in its own right. To do it at the age of 35, when most predicted he would be too old to adapt is outstanding. Nevertheless, in recent weeks, United have coped fairly well when he hasn’t been in the team.

Against Chelsea last weekend, they paired Marcus Rashford with Jesse Lingard, and the team looked faster, more mobile. Scoring goals at Old Trafford has been a problem for United this season, yet they managed it within seven minutes against the Premier League leaders. The pace of those two players caused Chelsea endless problems. It’s probably fair to say that United would not have played at the same speed had their top scorer started. Antonio Conte would not have been expecting that, and will have planned his tactics on stopping Ibrahimović. It was a masterstroke by Mourinho, which the Chelsea boss did not have an answer for.

A similar story happened at Middlesbrough a few weeks ago, while the Swedish striker was suspended. United looked at to attack at pace, and Jesse Lingard’s goal came after a superb counter attack. Although Ibrahimović is a big game player, he has looked static in recent weeks, even when he has got on the scoresheet, which has slowed the team down. Whether the pace of the Premier League has finally caught up with him is open to debate, but against Anderlecht his injury was the first real impact he made on the game, other than missing a couple of gilt-edged chances.

In some games he has been magnificent, scored some fantastic goals and inspired his team mates. In others, he has been barely noticeable, before appearing out of nowhere to score, such as against Sunderland. It had seemed as though Zlatan Ibrahimović was undroppable at United, prior to the Chelsea game. The injury which has finished his season, and maybe his Old Trafford career, has taken that decision out of Mourinho’s hands.

Marcos Rojo’s injury

The other blow which United sustained against Anderlecht was Marcos Rojo’s injury. An innocuous looking challenge saw the Argentine defender go down clutching his knee, clearly in pain. He got up soon after but within minutes he was down again, eventually being stretchered off the field after 23 minutes.

Rojo’s Manchester United career has not been a smooth one so far. He was heavily tipped to follow Louis van Gaal out of the club last summer, but Mourinho gave him a chance to prove himself. For most of his time at Old Trafford, Rojo has been deployed at left back, where he generally plays for Argentina. It was his displays at the 2014 World Cup that prompted van Gaal to sign him that summer.

Prior to Eric Bailly’s injury at Stamford Bridge in United’s 4-0 defeat to Chelsea in October, Rojo had not made a single Premier League appearance. He came on as a substitute that day, but had mainly been used in the EFL Cup and Europa League. A further injury to Chris Smalling prompted Mourinho to start him at centre-back for the home game with Burnley. Since then you can count the number of league matches he hasn’t started on one hand, most of them in the centre.

The position seems to suit him better, as he is not the type of player with the pace or stamina to be a box-to-box full-back. He’s aggressive, fearless, strong, and has good positional sense. It’s fair to say he has been fortunate that a couple of two-footed lunges earlier in the campaign went unpunished, but otherwise he has been solid. It cannot be any coincidence that United have the second-best defensive record in the Premier League, only Tottenham have conceded fewer.

Rojo’s injury comes at a time when United are struggling to put the ball in the net with any real consistency. The last thing they need is to take a hit on the one thing that has been their saving grace this season; their defensive solidarity.

Mourinho’s Options

Marcos Rojo’s injury presents a real problem, because United already have a defensive crisis. Phil Jones (foot) and Chris Smalling (knee) are both currently side-lined. Mourinho has hinted they may be ready to return soon, but even then they will need to get up to match fitness. The Manchester derby is less than a week away, and whoever comes in will need to be able to hit the ground running. Unless they are involved against Burnley on Sunday, neither Jones nor Smalling can promise that.

Daley Blind played at centre back for the majority of last season, and earned several plaudits for his performances. There is no doubt that he did well, but he is not, and never will be the long term answer. He was merely a stop-gap solution, and despite his best efforts, it seemed that David De Gea was still producing several match-winning saves most weeks. Had Blind been as good in the position as some say he was, De Gea wouldn’t have needed to be doing that. This season, although still outstanding, the Spanish goalkeeper hasn’t been anywhere near as busy as last year.

Michael Carrick has regularly been deployed in defence down the years, even under Sir Alex Ferguson. He is a reliable performer, and will definitely do a job. But United now face playing twice a week for the remainder of the campaign, and they need a defender who can play every game. There is also the fact that United will need him in midfield, so putting him in defence will weaken another area of the pitch. Italian Matteo Darmian has also been muted as a solution, but given that he hasn’t played too often in his favoured full back position, it seems unlikely that Mourinho will task him with the job.

United could look to their academy to solve the issue, with two names that may well be the answer, in the short term at least. Axel Tuanzebe has been involved in several match day squads this season, and made his first appearance in the F.A. Cup against Wigan in January. Mourinho has suggested that the 19 year old may make his full debut against Burnley. Dutchman Tim Fosu-Mensah is another option that the Portuguese manager could consider, but has been surprisingly underused this term.

There is no doubt that Mourinho will look to strengthen his back line this summer, but presently he has to make do with what he has available. Rojo’s injury has thrown him a curveball that he did not plan on, and could have really done without.

Going Foward

The main reason that Ibrahimović’s absence doesn’t present such a problem to Mourinho is that he has plenty of options in attack. Wayne Rooney, despite being a shadow of the player he once was, is fit again and could still have an important part to play. Having remained on the bench against Anderlecht, he may be thrown in against Burnley. It may be the perfect time to save his flagging United career. He also has Anthony Martial who, despite an underwhelming second season at Old Trafford, has the pace and skill to frighten any defence. This might be his time to shine.

Marcus Rashford seems to have rediscovered his scoring touch in recent weeks, and not before time. Jesse Lingard, despite being more of a winger than a striker, partnered Rashford against Chelsea to great effect. Providing he can keep all of his attackers fit for the rest of the season, the only selection headaches Mourinho should have will be tactical ones.

The defensive crisis, however, presents real problems for United. Someone is going to have to step up to the mantle. The Red Devils are striving to secure Champions League football for next term, and Rojo’s injury has thrown a spanner into the works.

The smart money would be on Daley Blind being selected, which worries most United fans. He can do a job in that position, but Blind’s lack of pace led to City’s first goal in September’s derby. He has rarely featured in that position since then, and on Thursday United will face a world class forward in the shape of Sergio Agüero. Mourinho will need to factor that into his planning.

Why Marcos Rojo’s Injury presents a bigger problem to Manchester United than Ibrahimović’s

If you had told any United fan six months ago that they would be more worried about Marcos Rojo being injured than Ibrahimović, they probably would have laughed at the prospect. Most of them wouldn’t have been too upset if the defender had been sold last summer. But United have come to rely on the Argentine in recent months more than they could have ever imagined.

It cannot be a coincidence that, against Anderlecht on Thursday, the Belgians became bolder when Blind replaced him. They attacked at will, and scored shortly afterwards, with the Dutchman’s hesitancy to react a big factor.

Ibrahimović may never play for United again, but how they have played without him in recent weeks suggests that they will be ok. The game against Chelsea showed a Manchester United performance rarely seen since Alex Ferguson retired four years ago; it was exciting. They took on the best team in the country, and soundly beat them. They played with pace and urgency which, despite his impressive scoring record, doesn’t happen too often when the Swedish striker leads the attack.

In short, United will cope with the loss of Ibrahimović. They would, of course, prefer to have him available, but they do have options. On the other hand, Marcos Rojo’s injury could be the main factor which stops them attainting a place in the top four, or winning the Europa League. Manchester United now face playing twice a week for the rest of the season.

If Old Trafford is to be hosting Champions League football, Mourinho needs to make sure that he makes the right call in replacing Rojo. None of the defensive options will fill United fans with too much confidence.

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