News that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has signed another contract to stay at Manchester United wasn’t greeted with quite the same enthusiasm as when he joined the club in 2016. While broadly welcomed, there are concerns that the Swede slows United’s attacking play, making the team more static and reliant on one forward when, on the form shown so far, United appear anything but static and slow.
Ibrahimovic, the man who smashed United’s ‘power’ records during his United medical and let everyone know he’d done so on social media, has surprised people with the speed at which he’s recovering from a serious knee ligament injury that doctors felt could keep him out until 2018.
Yet Jose Mourinho, who enjoys a good relationship with Ibra, immediately wanted him to do his rehabilitation at United’s AON training centre with a view to giving him another contract.
Ibrahimovic hasn’t been away long, but United have changed in his absence. Wayne Rooney has gone to Everton and striker Romelu Lukaku has gone the other way.
Lukaku has settled as quickly as Ibrahimovic did a year ago and scored four in his first three games -the same as the Swede.
But importantly United are scoring more and the goals are coming from a wider range of sources.
Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial have all scored in each of United’s 4-0 wins so far this season. Even Eric Bailly managed his first United goal against Swansea. The eight goals in two games are one more than the seven in the first four games of last season, half of them from Ibrahimovic. He was clinical, but the team created few chances and goals weren’t spread about.
That wasn’t Ibra’s fault – he complained that the only chance he had in last September’s Manchester derby came from Claudio Bravo. He scored it, naturally, but those around him didn’t score enough because almost all United’s attacking play went through him.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, one of several attacking players who was expected to contribute goals, managed only four in the league and no assists. In the previous season he’d managed 23 goals and 32 assists across all games for Borussia Dortmund.
Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, scored an astonishing 28 goals before the injury in a Europa League match against Anderlecht. The next highest United scorers – Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford – managed 11. United scored only 54 league goals in 38 games, while the five teams above them managed at least 77.
Ibrahimovic was a success in Manchester and the man who’d divided opinion among English football fans – he’d seldom appeared to excel against English teams in European competition – saw estimations quickly revised after his first few United games.
Fans took to him straight away singing:
“Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He is a Swedish hero. On a free from PSG, He cost us fucking zero, 6 foot 5, He’s hard as fuck, He gets the Reds excited, Stick your Citeh up your arse, Coz we are Man United!”
He was not only an instant hit on the pitch but also off it. Commercially, no player came close to generating as many shirt-sales as he. In the dressing room, he clicked.
In March, I spoke about him with Michael Carrick, who told me: “He’s a big, confident personality. He’s got a belief which rubs off on the players, especially the younger ones. We’ve probably not had that type of character in the squad for some time.
“That’s not something that anyone could be because you have to be yourself. It’s not like I could turn into Zlatan or Wayne. You need different personalities and Zlatan and Paul Pogba have ticked two more boxes. I’m quite quiet and calm, Zlatan brings something different, he’s more outspoken.
“Zlatan has been around, he’s got a lot of experience and I have the utmost respect for him. He’s played 40 games this season at his age. My age! He’s come to a new country and proved himself instantly, scoring all those goals. He really looks after himself and he’s a good laugh. He’s funny, he has cutting comments and he can destroy people at times.”
United needed a character in a dressing room lacking characters, a giant – physically and metaphorically – with the balls to wear the shirt and take responsibility.
Zlatan was that man, but Paul Pogba has since taken over.
Most United fans think he’ll be a positive addition to the squad, though his role will change from being the main man now Lukaku has arrived. Not that anyone expects Ibrahimovic to see it like that. His determination is legendary and one reason why Mourinho wants him back; his finishing is top class too and something that Marcus Rashford can learn from on the evidence seen so far this season. He’s great in the air, and boasts a cocksure swagger.
— Zlatan Ibrahimović (@Ibra_official) August 21, 2017
Former United defender David May said of Zlatan: “As long as he gets service, he will always score goals.”
One moment stuck out for May last season.
“Zlatan made a challenge on a West Brom centre half where he possibly could have been sent off,” he told me. “But he didn’t leap with his elbow out or an intent to hurt. He got away with it, but the defender must have been wondering what had hit him. He’d gone for a ball that was 65% in his favour, but Zlatan still went for it…
“He was brave to do that, but I’ve never seen someone play upfront on his own and run the line like Zlatan does…. He bullies them, he sends out a message as if to say: ‘Bring it on!’ He’s not arrogant like some say, he’s just very confident and has enough ability to trust his talent and his judgement.”
United badly needed his goals, his confidence and talent, but what will Zlatan bring in 2017-18? Martial (who sees himself as a centre forward) is playing well, Lukaku and Rashford too. Will Zlatan even be a first choice starter? Does it matter?
After all, he offers another option for Mourinho in a side which continues to improve.