Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the great strikers of our time. Questioned for never playing in England, questioned for his failures in big games, the towering Swede has answered queries with an arrogant verve throughout his career. With a record that is nigh-on unrivalled, Manchester United’s glamorous summer free transfer is one of the names of the sport. One of the overbearing personalities that only adds to the spectacle of any occasion.
Eyes are fixed on Ibrahimovic whatever the situation. He is a star. An ageing, less mobile star admittedly, but his game has never really relied on the ability to burst past players. His dominance has hardly diminished, in fact.
Despite all of this, one thing he is powerless to prevent is the football media’s insistence to call for crisis, call out his decline or call for his manager to pull him from the team. It might be the overwhelming desire for hyperbole that sweeps across sport, or it might be some sort of inherent desire that millennials have to see Manchester United fail after their two decades of utter dominance. Of course questioning a player’s ability to play creates stories, creates debates. It is a glaring mistake in some instances, however.
Ibrahimovic, as he said in his interview after Manchester United’s game with Swansea, was not concerned by a barren goalscoring spell. He was getting chances and his undoubted self-confidence meant that he continued in the knowledge that the goals would come.
Why did so few others think like that?
Calls across social media and the press for one of the greatest footballers of this millennium to be dropped seemed ludicrous after his two emphatic finishes against Swansea. To many, though, it was not only then that they seemed foolish. Everything suggested that Ibrahimovic would return to form soon, just as he did.
As shown on the below, Ibrahimovic’s expected goals per 90 (xG) is far out of reach for any other player in the Premier League. His low expected assists (xA) show a change in his role at Manchester United and the effects of ageing, but his xG is glaring evidence of his drought ending and ending in dramatic fashion (as it did at the Liberty Stadium). Pair this with Ibrahimovic’s career xG conversion rate, which is significantly higher than the norm, and you have an inevitable return to goal scoring form.
Doubts then, may have been misplaced. Who’d have thought that one of the world’s best strikers was going to start scoring again?
Desire to find a fault, blame an individual player or question a manager is natural instinct for any involved in football. The concern regarding Manchester United’s goalscoring difficulties and Ibrahimovic should be about his all-round production rather than his finishing capabilities. He was always going to return to a high level of finishing, but that alone will not solve the problems Jose Mourinho has at Manchester United.
Scapegoating is easy (just ask Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling), finding a reasonable solution is often harder. The balance of Manchester United’s team has been wrong for the most part of this season, with star quality pulling them through earlier in the campaign. A player of Ibrahimovic’s attributes, age and quality needs players close to him, players with energy, pace and intelligent movement. It is easy to think the formula that dismantled Swansea is the right one, but the failings of Swansea were at least as important as United’s improvement.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s arrival in the Premier League came far later than it should have done. The understanding of just how good he is may take time, it may even be after he has gone, but it is a necessity for the English game. Just as we saw Sergio Aguero questioned during his recent, brief goal scoring drought, Ibrahimovic quickly made everyone look foolish for their assumptions. Time is not on his side, but quality, a prolific career and a strong start in English football is.