Zlatan Ibrahimovic is never one to accept anything other than centre stage, so it came as little surprise to hear that his second act at Manchester United may soon reach a swift end.
“If it’s true and he wants a future at another club we are here to help,” said Mourinho on Monday of well-sourced stories linking Ibrahimovic to a move to LA Galaxy. It signalled the amicable conclusion of an alliance. With Alexis Sanchez on board, United’s need for the Swede is diminished, all the more so given Ibrahimovic has returned from serious injury as an understandably reduced force.
It turns out that even the bravest lions struggle to recover from a ruptured cruciate ligament, even if they “don’t recover like humans”, as Zlatan pronounced in November, barely seven months after Old Trafford had gasped in sympathy when he collapsed in agony in the latter stages of a Europa League match with Anderlecht.
Despite Ibrahimovic’s renouncement of his species to instead become a king of the beasts, there is no disgrace in a 36-year-old male human being failing to recover to his imperious best. He had already silenced his many Premier League doubters by proving he was still good enough for English football after arriving as a veteran. A return of 28 goals in 46 matches was near-prolific, and Mourinho’s troubled first campaign would have been a far sorrier story without it.
He even got to deliver a moment of Wembley wizardry, in the form of a crashing header from Ander Herrera’s cross that won the League Cup in February. That trophy is a lesser concern, perhaps, but Ibrahimovic’s two goals that day rescued a badly listing United, outplayed by Southampton for most of the 90 minutes. By the time he broke down against Anderlecht, Ibrahimovic had almost made his point, generating a widespread regret that he had not tried his hand earlier in English football, though the reasons for that lay in probably nobody being able to afford to sign him.
Injury denied what might have been a stellar send-off in the Europa League final in Stockholm. Ibrahimovic was reduced to the role of executive cheerleader, though did impress with his mobility under five weeks after suffering that “ACL”. Within another week, his Instagram account was doing serious numbers – over 9 million views – with a video of him getting back in ball training with some neat, albeit tentative volleying skills.
But even allowing for the progression of medical science, and a knee that agent Mino Raiola said was “so strong that the doctors said they had never seen anything like it,” Ibrahimovic’s United return came as a lesser force. Romelu Lukaku, younger, more mobile, has his place at centre-forward, and he has lately been absent after a set-back.
After the comeback came so quickly in November, there was something pitiable about Ibrahimovic. In the seven matches he played, the movement was reduced to a mere trot, that previously ultra-powerful physique drained. And worse than that, the sureness of scoring touch was missing. His single goal came from a free-kick, punched in with visible anger while United were playing dreadfully at Bristol City and deservedly losing 2-1. He has not featured since Boxing Day. The social media demonstrations of training regimes continue, showing off the completion of a tattoo that spans his entire back, but the United race now looks to be run.
“I wouldn’t say he’s injured,” Mourinho explained. “He is in a moment of trying to feel really ready for demands of Premier League football.”
The likelihood appears that Ibrahimovic will not kick many more balls in England’s top division, if any.
Los Angeles, where David Beckham set on his way to getting his own franchise, Steven Gerrard struggled away from his Merseyside roots and Robbie Keane became an All-American hero of MLS, would seem an apt stage for a next chapter. Score some spectacular goals, supply those flourishes of charismatic arrogance, and Hollywood might be his.
Should Zlatan be able to recover something of his previous self, then he can become the public face of a league still struggling to assert its legitimacy. And that will not be an unfamiliar role, since he fulfilled a similar function for Mourinho’s new regime after quitting PSG in the summer of 2016. His arrival brought Manchester United the “galactico” signing that CEO Ed Woodward had been craving, and brought Raiola into the fold, to grease the wheels of Paul Pogba’s eventual arrival.
Ibrahimovic’s presence as striker and standard-bearer also supplied the added byproduct of hastening a waning Wayne Rooney to the Old Trafford exit. Even if his time in Manchester has been too brief for him to be remembered as a United great, Zlatan should be recognised for the influence he exerted.