How Manchester United became the Zlatan show
The Swedish striker has come into Jose Mourinho’s squad and proved his ability
Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring their second goal against Blackburn in the FA Cup. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
If all the friends of Wayne Rooney quoted anonymously in the media are to be believed, the striker has not been making much of a secret of the fact that he is unhappy with his present position in the pecking order at Manchester United. It is not difficult to see why. While losing one’s place in the starting line-up is an occupational hazard for a goalscorer in his 30s, it must be galling to lose it to a player who is four years his senior.
Yet Rooney can have no real complaint. José Mourinho kept him on as captain and retained him in the side long enough for Rooney to break Bobby Charlton’s club scoring record. The fact it took him so long – he began the season on 245 goals and is now still on 250 – tells its own story. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored 24 goals in the same time.
In his lengthy United career Rooney has only surpassed that total for a whole season twice, both towards the end of the Alex Ferguson era, when he was at his mid-20s peak. It probably helps that Ibrahimovic plays right at the point of United’s attack, a constant presence on his own up front with the rest of the side fitting in around him, but when Rooney was asked to perform that role the 31-year-old was unable to make it work.
Everyone knew Ibrahimovic would be a useful acquisition for Mourinho at Old Trafford. He struck most people straight away as the nearest thing to an off-the-peg Eric Cantona and, after the dour functionality of the Louis van Gaal years, the new manager was judged to have acted shrewdly in bringing in a crowd-pleasing stylist with genuine star quality and more than a touch of the hauteur that is only permissible when a player at the top of his game knows exactly how good he is.
Few doubted that Ibrahimovic was good, even in his mid-30s and on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain. What was not commonly realised was that he would put the rest of United’s forwards in the shade to such an extent that even the young, promising ones have become bit parts. United are turning into the Zlatan Ibrahimovic show. They are unlikely to win the league this time – with five good sides ahead of them they are finding it a challenge just to break into the top four – but at his present scoring rate Ibrahimovic is on course to match the 30-goal contribution from Robin van Persie that did so much to help secure the club’s last title, in 2013. Unsurprisingly he is now being touted, even beyond Old Trafford, as the signing of the season.
Perhaps N’Golo Kanté will deserve consideration for that award should he end up with a second Premier League title after his move to Chelsea, though not even the former Leicester player has been carrying his new side the way Ibrahimovic has been carrying United. As was seen last Sunday at Blackburn, United can look quite pallid without him. Bring him on, admittedly to get on the end of a searching pass from his fellow substitute Paul Pogba, and United are through to the next round of the FA Cup no problem.
It was noticeable that whereas Ryan Giggs made the obvious Cantona comparison after a week in which Ibrahimovic scored a hat-trick against St-Étienne and booked United an FA Cup quarter-final appointment with Chelsea, Paul Scholes pointed out that the Swede could do with a bit of help up front and that it might be unfair to expect him to continue supplying most of the goals.
Scholes is quite enthused by the prospect of bringing in Antoine Griezmann as a secondary striker – presumably it was an attempted wind-up when he also mentioned Sergio Agüero – and such a partnership would certainly be worth seeing, however short-lived it might prove. To attract a player of Griezmann’s stature United would probably need to have Champions League qualification assured, and that is where they still have work to do, though on Sunday they can put the future to the back of their minds and concentrate on winning the first trophy of the season.
I will travel alone and try to conquer wherever I go, I have never been one of those players who sit around waiting for their mother to cook for them
Ibrahimovic has been collecting medals and trophies throughout his career. The only country in which he has played and not won anything of note is his native Sweden, and that was because he was spirited out of Malmo to join Ajax as a teenager. Ibrahimovic was always going to stand out in Swedish football, better known for functionality rather than flair and completely unaccustomed to producing 6ft 5in forwards who combine originality of thought and movement with a balletic grace and agility. Arsène Wenger tried to bring him to England shortly after taking over at Arsenal, though acting on a tip from Leo Beenhakker the Dutch club offered the player a contract rather than a trial.
After winning the Eredivisie title with Ronald Koeman as coach, Ibrahimovic was off to Italy, where legitimate scudetti were won with Internazionale and Milan after the Calciopoli-tainted ones at Juventus. In between was a spell at Barcelona, where he won another title but never seemed a comfortable fit with the tiki-taka style Pep Guardiola was promoting and the pair fell out within two seasons. In Paris Ibrahimovic added four titles in four years to take his total to 13 in four different countries, and though he appeared to be enjoying a gentle if well-remunerated countdown to retirement in Ligue 1 his move to Manchester proved otherwise.
Zlatan – he has trademarked the simpler version of his name – has yet to express any opinions on seagulls following trawlers yet can still be pleasingly gnomic in his public pronunciations. “As long as people want me I will do my best,” he said in November. “I will travel alone and try to conquer wherever I go, I have never been one of those players who sit around waiting for their mother to cook for them.
“It has not always been easy but if I had wanted everything to be straightforward I could have stayed in Malmo all the time. I knew it would be tough for a 35-year-old in the Premier League but I am not one to turn down a challenge.”
He’s a practical joker, he likes to wind people up, but he’s a real professional as well
If it is tough, Ibrahimovic is managing to make it look the opposite. A little over six months since opening his Manchester United account with the winning goal in the Community Shield game at Wembley in August, he returns to the same venue with another country all but conquered. His team-mates are as impressed as the fans, in fact some of his team-mates have turned into fans. “I think he is the best around at the moment,” Chris Smalling says. “I don’t think there are many players who tick as many boxes as he does. It is brilliant when you can rely on someone to score goals and he is a born winner. His standards are high, he hates to lose, but he is not the hostile, serious figure he sometimes appears from outside. He’s a practical joker, he likes to wind people up, but he’s a real professional as well.
“He has time for everyone, even when the kids come in for training he doesn’t ignore them. He’s a really good guy in the dressing room and on the pitch I just count myself lucky that I only have to play against him in training. He can be hard to stop.”
That task falls on Sunday afternoon to Southampton, who will be hoping to do better than they did at Old Trafford back in August, when Ibrahimovic introduced himself to his new public with a couple of goals to win the game. More of the same and United will have silverware on the sideboard to confirm the Mourinho era is up and running, although the manager will not be the only one at Wembley boasting a vast collection of glittering prizes.
For all anyone knows at this stage, history might come to recognise United in their current incarnation as representative of the Zlatan Ibrahimovic era.