It was fitting that, on the day the Oscar winners were announced, Zlatan Ibrahimovic delivered a late twist worthy of a Hollywood script. With the EFL Cup final between Manchester United and Southampton deadlocked at 2-2, extra-time looked inevitable. Ibrahimovic had other ideas, however. With just three minutes remaining, the talismanic Swede did what champion performers do best by netting the winner. Ever the showman, it should have come as no surprise. During an illustrious career, the 35-year-old has always had precision timing.
Ibrahimovic’s move to United was overshadowed by the capture of Paul Pogba for a world-record £90 million. But there is no denying which has brought more success. While the Frenchman has often struggled under the weight of expectation, Ibrahimovic, despite being in the autumn of his career, has continued where he left off at Paris Saint-Germain, from whom he joined on a free transfer. United’s reliance on Ibrahimovic, who has spearheaded the attack with relish, is already apparent. He has 26 goals to his name in all competitions, 15 of which have come in the Premier League. Without him, Jose Mourinho’s side would surely be out of contention for a top-four finish.
There was a great deal of scepticism when, after much speculation, Ibrahimovic opted to test himself in the Premier League. He had feasted upon weaker defences in France and this was supposed to be a step-up. Many doubted his ability to continue his prolific goalscoring record amid the intensity of the toughest league in the world. He has confounded all of his critics; not only with the number of goals he has scored, but the general standard of his play.
One remarkable statistic is that, despite his advancing years, Ibrahimovic has participated in more games than any other Premier League player this season. Such is his importance to United that Mourinho simply has not been able to rest his number nine. Ibrahimovic has never relied on pace – and that is key to his longevity. His game revolves around strength, power, and positional awareness. He is economical with his movement but ruthless in front of goal. As Southampton’s players found out to their cost in a dramatic conclusion at Wembley Stadium, leave Ibrahimovic in space and suffer the consequences.
Rumoured to be on £220,000 per week, Ibrahimovic is hardly destitute. But joining United was not a financial decision. Had that purely been his motivation, then he would have opted for a final, bumper pay-day in China before drifting into retirement. Ibrahimovic wanted to challenge himself. The lure of the Premier League – and particularly Manchester United – was too good to decline. Having played in Italy, Spain, and France, England was a notable absence from his CV.
Ibrahimovic was risking a reputation he had worked long and hard to establish. It could have all gone terribly wrong. If anything, though, the aura surrounding him is even greater – and United are reaping the rewards. The former Sweden captain is often described as egotistical, and undoubtedly there is an arrogance about his game. But he has always had substance to back up his style, which means he can get away with his outrageous off-field comments. Ibrahimovic has been the signing of the season and persuading him to extend his stay at United must be top of Mourinho’s agenda.