The arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic last year felt like a seminal moment in the re-emergence of Manchester United after the lull years under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.
With Jose Mourinho, Paul Pogba and the Swedish striker all joining the Old Trafford club at the same time, it felt like United were starting to get serious. The club won won two trophies, and even though they may not have been the cups United are usually desperate to win, it was a start. The man known the world over by just his mythical first name, Zlatan, scored 28 goals in all competitions and was a talismanic figure throughout the season.
And yet, things changed quite suddenly. A knee injury has kept the Swede out of action since the Europa League quarter-final in April, but that only seems to have smoothed out any difficulties in changing United’s style of play: despite so many goals, Ibrahimovic’s lack of movement was a problem at times last season, leading to a fit of turgid football and an inability to break down stubborn defences, particularly at home.
This season, with Romelu Lukaku leading the line and the likes of Marcus Rashford adding pace alongside the Belgian, United have started scoring goals and creating thrilling counter-attacks. Things have been better in an attacking sense so far, and even if that doesn’t come solely from the change of main striker, not having to cater for Ibrahimovic’s particular skillset has surely been of benefit so far.
And yet by the end of the summer, Ibrahimovic had signed a new deal with the club as he aimed to get back from injury and onto the pitch. But after a summer of reshuffling, he’s no longer first choice.
That doesn’t mean that Ibrahimovic won’t be a very important member of the squad this season. His megalomaniacal behaviour in announcing his return to the club as a player aside, he’s clearly worked incredibly hard this summer to return to fitness, though time will tell if he’s the same player he once was, or if it has effectively forced him into an earlier than expected twilight period. Either way, he can still be an asset.
This season so far, there hasn’t really been a need for him. United have blown away all opposition with the exception of Stoke City, but you know that later in the season things will get difficult. The same can be said for Manchester City, who have an identical record in every way with United. But when it comes to the hard winter games against teams who are fighting for every point in their quest for survival, you get the feeling that Ibrahimovic will be as big an asset to United as anything City have at their disposal. To be able to bring a man who would be a starting player for all but a handful of top European clubs this season off the bench to score goals late on in games is quite an astonishing weapon to have.
But it’s more than just having him as a weapon. We know he can handle the pressure of the big game. We know that he has experience of scoring goals in all environments, and can be a talismanic figure when things aren’t going his side’s way. And he also has height and power – something which, as we’ve seen so far this season, seems to fit perfectly into the Mourinho mould. Indeed, even if the manager has changed tack this year, focusing on dynamic attackers who can hit teams on the counter, the Swede is still a man who can be valuable in other circumstances.
— Zlatan Ibrahimović (@Ibra_official) August 24, 2017
But we already know all of that. We already know how good Ibrahimovic is and we already know what he brings to the team, as well as his drawbacks. But perhaps under Mourinho there’s a role for Ibrahimovic that seems incongruous for a player of his stature and celebrity, and something we’ve seen before under a previous Manchester United manager.
It was an old Alex Ferguson trick to bring in an old poacher of a striker to keep on the bench and throw on when his side needed a goal. Bookended by younger models like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Javier Hernandez were the likes of Michael Owen and Henrik Larsson, who were brought to Old Trafford by Ferguson with the brief of coming off the bench and scoring when the side needed it most.
Ibrahimovic is in a similar mould this year. He’s the kind of player who won’t expect to start every week given his injury and the fact that the situation has now changed at the club. But he’s also exactly the kind of player Mourinho can use to change a game in which his side are losing or just when they’re failing to break down a defence.
In a very new way, Mourinho seems to be repeating an old Alex Ferguson trick.