Reading reports of the EFL Cup Final on Sunday, one may have wondered if the most successful club in English football had become something of a one-man-team. Zlatan Ibrahimovic stole the show in the season’s first domestic cup final and he now seems invaluable to Manchester United. Especially when you consider that his actual value during last summer’s transfer window was exactly nothing. Since his move to Manchester he has converted even the most ardent of footballing Euro-sceptics and proved that, to him, English football represents little more than another series of trophies for him to set about furiously collecting.
Slightly underwhelming in his meetings with English clubs in the past, now plying his trade against them weekly it is hard to imagine why some thought he would struggle to adapt. His goals alone have been invaluable, and without them United’s top four prospects would surely have ended months ago. Another goal for the Swede would see him reach 27 for the season, three times the tally of United’s second highest goal scorer, Juan Mata.
However with Ibrahimovic, the goals do not tell the whole story. United’s burgeoning arsenal of attacking firepower is heavy on talent but slightly light on experience, and this is where the 36-year-old’s value may really lie in the long-term. His aura was intoxicating at the final whistle on Sunday as he strolled around Wembley as Manchester United’s number nine. A difficult shirt to fill, but one currently bursting at the seams; brimming with talent and attitude. Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial could scarcely have picked a better craftsman to learn their trade under. Watching and playing alongside their talisman on Sunday, they will have learnt how to shine in the spotlight and not be blinded by the glare.
When Ibrahimovic moved to Paris at the tender age of 30 some thought his career was winding down, but after five goal-heavy and trophy-laden years in France it was clear that he was still very much alive and kicking and his European tour of a career moved to Manchester. Few imagined he could reach the same heights that he hit in Paris, but then few predicted what a perfect home Old Trafford would prove to be.
Obviously, at the age of 35 he has lost some pace, but he is clever enough to value the legs of Rashford, Lingard and Martial, just as much as they value his speed of thought. Their pace not only creates room for Ibrahimovic, but also for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba and Juan Mata. These are exceptional players and their ability to combine with Ibrahimovic has been part of the reason for the Swede’s success. Pogba and Ibrahimovic’s chemistry saw them elevate long ball football into a type of avant-garde performance art in their game against Blackburn, such was the ease and simplicity of the veteran striker’s eventual winner.
It should come as no surprise then, that Old Trafford has proved a happy home for United’s new number nine. He offers the excitement and bravado that the Stretford End craved as their club seemed to slide dangerously close to mediocrity. They’d had enough of being normal, and suddenly, one of the world’s most extraordinary athletes fell into their lap. It is hard to think of many other top clubs who were so ready to crown a new king, and the comparisons to Eric Cantona were clear. Unless he plays into his forties, Ibrahimovic will not have been at Old Trafford for as long as the Frenchman, but with some careful management his influence may be felt for just as long.
Before he took over as manager, some Manchester United fans questioned whether Jose Mourinho could bring through youth. If he sticks around in Manchester then his current talisman may be the answer. Mourinho must ensure that Rashford and co.’s stars are allowed to ascend as Ibrahimovic’s inevitably falls to usher in a new era of success. Before the man known simply as ‘Zlatan’ grows old, the next generation must be allowed to grow in stature. Ibrahimovic may only be a short term solution for Manchester United’s lack of goals, but long term, his influence might prove invaluable.
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