When Zlatan Ibrahimovic injured his ACL in the Europa League quarter-final versus Anderlecht, most fans thought it to be the sad ending to his Manchester United stint. He had joined to an extraordinary reception back at the start of the season, especially for a free transfer. But this was no ordinary player: this was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the charismatic Swede who thought highly of himself and talked the talk more often than not too. Despite his profligacy in front of goal, he managed 28 goals in 46 appearances in all competitions, 17 in 28 in the Premier League. He didn’t deserve to bow out with a long-term injury. But as he’d tell you, that’s the thing with lions, they go out on their own terms.
Fast forward to 24th August, when in typical style the player beat the club to the announcement of a one-year deal along the lines of a delayed contract extension. When he was released at the start of the summer, the obvious caveat was that he continued to train at the club, meaning that a new deal at a later point was always on the cards. But no one expected the deal to be announced before the window closed. That’s a testament to his recovery.
Ibrahimovic’s video on Twitter a couple of days ago in which he kicked a punching bag repeatedly to the caption ‘Which knee?’ was the obvious sign that his recovery was speedier than expected. Even with the false claims that doctors wanted to study his knee, Ibrahimovic’s fitness has always been on another level. A 35-year old recovering from an ACL injury in quick time is unheard of, but that’s the thing you get with Ibrahimovic: unpredictability.
But this year will hugely contrast to his previous year, when he was the main man at the tip of the attack. With United’s addition of Romelu Lukaku earlier this window, the club have a strong and powerful striker, whose finishing and movement more than makes up for his first touch and link-up play, areas which pale in comparison to Ibra. But at 24, he is the long-term option, and unlike Ibrahimovic last season, is more likely to finish a gilt-edged chance when it comes. As with Rashford’s misguided chip in the Swansea game, it appears that Lukaku is the only ruthless striker at the club right now. That throws into question Ibra’s role this season.
This season was always going to be different. For all that the Swede brings to the table, he is no long-term option. Lukaku scored 25 goals in the Premier League last season. He’s thrived in the Premier League for the past five seasons and with improved service at United, is only set to add to his burgeoning goal tally. But what he doesn’t have is Champions League experience. That is what Ibrahimovic can offer this season, given his vast exposure there. Guiding United to the Europa League final (even if he was in absentia for the latter stages), Ibra provides the intangibles that the squad needs in the dressing room.
Again, this is all dependent on his fitness. If he fails to hit 100% game fitness, he won’t provide much value to the squad. But unlike last season, where he was the Plan A, he’s the Plan B this season, or even a Plan C. There’s Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial waiting in the slipstream. With United winning their first two league games 4-0, this is far from tinkering with a strong juggernaut. Even if Ibra fails to add much to the squad, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, far from it. And with his gracious waiving of wages last season while he was injured, the wage drain this year if Ibra fails to hit peak productivity would not hit the club as badly, even if it did. But whether Ibra is on reduced wages or not will not interest fans much.
The only worry for fans may be that Mourinho could favour Ibrahimovic more, sidelining Rashford. But the bottom line remains the same: the club spent a whole load of money on Lukaku, ensuring his status as top dog on the pitch. Mourinho has continued to show faith in Rashford this season, ensuring he will receive sufficient gametime, and with the amount he played last season coupled with the World Cup next year, that will only be good for the player. Though Ibra remains a favourite of Mourinho, common sense dictates that Ibra will be a back-up. Oppositions will hate to see Ibra coming off the bench to run at tired legs. It’s obvious Mourinho knows what he’s getting- so while he may slow down the attack, he won’t be a starter, but will fill a role similar to Fellaini, adding tactical flexibility if needed. It’s a long season; injuries are inevitable. No club in the league (and arguably world) will have a better back-up striker this season. His addition completes a well-rounded attack: pace, power, intelligence, experience, goals and a mixture of ages, but most importantly ambition. It doesn’t get better, on paper at least. In theory at least, it looks like a game-changer towards #21.
The Swede continues to make his way towards full fitness. Despite what the announcement may suggest, he still has at least a month left for his recovery, an astounding fact when you consider he was slated for a return in November. With the season only set to intensify from late September, the timing of his return could be perfect. Whether he’s angel or devil, fans can look forward to another year of Ibra-kadabra. No, 9 or No.10, enjoy him while you can. How poetic would it be if Ibra, who won no major European title in his career, won the Europa and Champions League in his two years at Utd?