At the half way stage, Manchester United are slowly picking up momentum and closing the gap on the top four in the quest for a twenty-first league title. A man who has been pivotal in this revival is the current Premier League player of the month – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who at 35 is definitely – along with Michael Carrick – the elder statesman of the squad. He is United’s top goal scorer (a single goal behind Diego Costa and level with Harry Kane and Alexis Sanchez), he has had the most shots in the Premier League and has started the most games for the club (excluding David De Gea) – a half term report many thought they would never see.
Only Ruud van Nistelrooy has scored more Premier League goals for Manchester United in the opening nineteen appearances, meaning that Ibrahimovic has out performed Teddy Sheringham, Andy Cole and even Robin van Persie – who arguably put in one of the best debut season’s in 2012/13.
Many wrote him off, many felt he wouldn’t be able to cut it in England – however, Zlatan has proved to be an inspirational signing made for Old Trafford. His ability is still first class, whilst his experience and personality is having a positive influence on younger players. Jose Mourinho must take credit in bring him to the club as the Portuguese will be confident his summer signing will continue his good form against Liverpool this afternoon. Ibrahimovic has the ability to succeed at the highest level, but more importantly – he has the character that Manchester United were calling out for.
Wherever Ibrahimovic has been, he has scored goals and won trophies. The suggestion that he wouldn’t be able to cut it in the Premier League most likely was due to his age combined with the notion that, in England, many saw him as a luxury player that didn’t always delivery in the latter stages of major European or International competitions. This is an assessment of a player who has won league titles with the likes of Ajax, Juventus (both were revoked due to the Calciopoli scandal), Internazionale, Barcelona and PSG and has scored goals wherever he has been. From the ridiculously sublime individual effort we witnessed in Amsterdam to breaking goal scoring records (he smashed Pauleta’s tally in record time) in Paris – United’s number nine has been a success.
For those that felt he was a luxury player that didn’t deliver you only have to look at his achievements. Along with Ronaldinho, he is the only player to score a goal in El Clasico, the Milan derby and France’s “Le Classique”. He can now add the Manchester derby to that list. He has won thirteen titles in some of Europe’s top leagues. He has scored more than fifty European League goals and featured in the Champions League team of the season (2013/14) – not bad for a player constantly written off. Yes, he hasn’t yet won the European Cup (Ibrahimovic joined Barcelona in the summer after they won the Champions League, leaving Internazionale who then went on to win the European Cup the following May) – but this isn’t a reflection of his ability and has scored an abundance of goals throughout his career, wherever he has been.
This is the player that when was once offered a trial, whilst playing for Malmo, by Arsenal but declined the opportunity and remarked “Zlatan doesn’t do auditions” following Arsene Wneger’s offer. To have that self belief, confidence and aggression means he was made to play at Old Trafford. Sir Matt Busby once stated that “character” is the most important attribute in a player’s arsenal to be able to perform week in week out at United – and Ibrahimovic definitely has that.
You can see it rubbing off on the younger players, with Paul Pogba now beginning to dominate the midfield battle with the same arrogance and swagger of his teammate. Off the pitch, his professionalism is second to none (he has his own personal fitness coach), which is a contributing factor to why he is still performing to a high level on the biggest stage at the age of 35. Mourinho believes he will still be hitting those same levels for another season at Old Trafford, and you wouldn’t argue against it based upon his form so far this season. He may not have the longevity of a Neymar signing, but United’s marketing department are still rubbing their hands with glee at the impact of the big Swede – both on and off the pitch.
It is a stark contrast to that of Wayne Rooney, who could well scored his 250th goal for Manchester United today in arguable the biggest fixture of the football calendar. Rooney is 31 years old and has four years on Ibrahimovic, however – in terms of importance to the team – there is only one player who is first name on the team sheet these days. Now, I am a Rooney fan – I think the guy has been superb for the club for a number of years and has played a major role in United’s dominance in the latter part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s career.
He has scored some unbelievable goals in his time and will surpass Sir Bobby Charlton’s all time goalscoring record to be out on his own. Having said that, the difference in performances at present between Rooney and Ibrahimovic are worlds apart. There is a possibility Rooney could have a late resurgence as he approaches the autumn of his career, however – everything that we have seen so far this season would not point to such a revival.
Rooney has always played well with pace around him, so that he can pinpoint those passes in behind the full backs and centre halves – and Ibrahimovic, despite having the current accolade of being the player with the most offsides all season, usually comes towards the ball, rather than running in behind. The three man midfield of Carrick, Ander Herrera and Pogba provides a much better balance to Mourinho’s men – whilst getting the best out of the Frenchman (rather than restricting him with more defensive responsibilities).
Mourinho pulled off a blinder in the capture of Ibrahimovic and speaks volume for the man management skills of the Portuguese. It is arguable that no other manager could have persuaded the Swede to join a team that isn’t competing for the European Cup and still haunted by the ghosts of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal (Mourinho’s change in personnel – including some notable exclusions from the squad is looking to exorcise those ghosts) in the purgatory of transition. Ibrahimovic could well have joined another Champions League side or ventured to a new project in the MLS or China’s Super League. However, United fans are extremely lucky to have a player of his calibre at the club and his character brings so much more to Manchester United than just his goals.