AFTER Manchester United said farewell to Zlatan Ibrahimovic on Thursday, we look back at his time at Old Trafford, and explain why it was so important for the striker, Jose Mourinho and the club.
It is a somewhat underwhelming exit for an over-the-top character. Zlatan Ibrahimovic departs Manchester United mid-campaign but free of the Roy Keane fireworks, having made only one Premier League start all season. That came in a home game against Burnley in which he was hooked at half-time with United two goals down.
As a result, for all the recent criticism directed at Jose Mourinho and his side, there is no great sense that Ibrahimovic will be a telling loss in the remaining weeks of the season. With 10 goals in 14 appearances since the turn of the year, Romelu Lukaku has done more than enough to reassure supporters of his status as the club’s top striker.
But while Ibrahimovic’s time at Old Trafford has now drawn to a close, it is worth remembering that this self-proclaimed lion once roared in United red. He does not just deserve credit for returning from an anterior cruciate ligament injury in 216 days at the age of 36, but for embodying the winning mentality needed to succeed.
Paul Pogba was the big-money signing in Mourinho’s first season in charge, but Ibrahimovic left nobody in any doubt that he was the big man riding to the rescue. Up to a point, he did just that. Certainly, his impressive tally of 28 goals in 46 appearances last term told only part of the tale. The assurance that he gave those around him was significant.
It is difficult to quantify the impact of a man who announced himself to the United kit men with the words “God has arrived” but it is fair to assume that he inspired a bit more belief among his team-mates. “When you get characters like him, who have been winning their whole career, it just boosts everyone,” explained Chris Smalling.
“He has brought a lot of things to the team, not just his mentality, but his way of understanding football, his way of behaving with the players in the dressing room,” added the ever astute Juan Mata midway through last season. “He is always pushing buttons in the right moment and in the right way trying to motivate everyone.”
In other words, he was just what Mourinho needed when trying to establish a new regime – a trusted lieutenant and one who handily happens to think that the Portuguese is a vastly superior manager to one Pep Guardiola. On the pitch, Ibrahimovic’s role in securing the three trophies of which Mourinho was so fond of celebrating was huge.
He outmuscled Leicester’s Wes Morgan to score the winner on his debut in the Community Shield at Wembley and then pulled off a similar feat in scoring twice to beat Southampton in the League Cup final at the same venue. “Zlatan is incredible,” said Michael Carrick afterwards. “There’s been no bigger goal than his second today and he’s won us the cup.”
At that stage of the campaign, at the end of February, Ibrahimovic had scored 26 goals in all competitions. With as many as 23 matches to add to his total, 40 goals looked likely and he was widely touted as the player of the year. Jamie Carragher tipped him on the grounds that he was “virtually carrying United” and he did still make the PFA shortlist.
At times, this belated celebration of Ibrahimovic felt like a collective apology. No country was slower to appreciate his gifts. As he himself put it after the praise for his four goals in a 2012 friendly against England: “That’s the way it is with the English. If you score against them you’re a good player, if you don’t score against them you’re not a good player.”
While his FIFA goal of the year winning strike for Sweden in that game altered the perception, it was the match against Southampton at Wembley that silenced the remaining doubters. Already a serial winner in Holland, Italy, Spain and France, Ibrahimovic succeeded in winning over England at an age when he should really have been long past his prime.
Despite scoring five times in the Europa League, a hat-trick of final heroics was denied him. The injury picked up against Anderlecht in the quarter-final robbed him of the chance to play in the first major European final of his career against his former club Ajax in his home country of Sweden. It would have been an appropriate swansong.
Instead, there would be no perfect ending. Just fond memories and a point emphatically proved. Fifty-three appearances and 29 goals are perhaps not really enough to earn the status of Manchester United legend. But there should be no doubting that Ibrahimovic’s time in the Premier League nevertheless enhanced the legend of Zlatan.