Expectations shattered. Manchester United fans, accompanied by English football fans, were oddly cautious over what Zlatan Ibrahimović would achieve in the Premier League. A year on from his arrival at the club, he has been released after a 28-goal season, a wonderful one-season flirt with English football that United fans, at least, will remember with great fondness.
28 goals for a 35-year-old is remarkable, but that’s what Ibrahimović is. On and off the pitch, he is remarkable. Perhaps more fitting a word is breathtaking; even his consolation goal for United in the Manchester Derby was an incredible use of his body. His outside-of-the-box lob against Everton was audacious to the extreme. Watching as a Red, the process of that goal was similar to many others; a glorious unadulterated gasp-filled celebration.
Zlatan the God
This is the Zlatan Ibrahimović that described himself as both a “God” and a “lion” in his time at Man United. He proved excessively cautious expectations wrong on the pitch. Off it, no one had doubted his entertainment value. God, lion, a 6ft 5in Swede with arrogance and performances to back it up. United fans will remember Ibrahimović’s Cantona-esque idioms off the pitch just as much as his excellence on it.
It is sad that he couldn’t bow out of the elite game, bring this one-season Mancunian affair to a wonderful end, by winning the Reds the UEFA Europa League in his home country, Sweden, in the Friends Arena, where a statue of his celebration is erected outside. He was still on the sidelines, though, part of the “crutch crew” as Eric Bailly later dubbed it. He celebrated in front of the now famous “Zlatan: Stay and you can shag my wife,” banner in the United end.
Ibrahimović will be continuing his medical recovery at Man United’s Carrington training ground. He’ll still be with his now former teammates. Quite possibly, United will offer Ibrahimović a new contract if his recovery is full.
Zlatan & Rashford
The Swede has helped the development of Marcus Rashford, in particular, as well as Anthony Martial and others at Man United. He has helped to re-instil the winning mentality so well established with Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides. José Mourinho, of course, has helped in that sense, as has the fact that United won two major trophies this season. But in the way in which Ibrahimović’s relentless winning attitude hauled Paris Saint-Germain to multiple trophy collections, he began to do the same at United.
But now, it’s time for those players he helped, Rashford and Martial, to take United to another level. It’s time for United to transform into a far more free-flowing and fluid Man United side. With the potential additions of Alvaro Morata or Andrea Belotti or others, Mourinho must take this opportunity to haul United back to the football they have been founded upon.
Ibrahimović is a stunning goalscorer, a human, let alone a footballer, who defies all expectations in everything he does. But his style of play can hold a team back. He has hauled United and Mourinho through the first season of the latest “transition” at Old Trafford. But simultaneously, the footballer that he is has produced an often slow and languid counter-attack under Mourinho.
It is now the time for United to properly transition without Ibrahimović holding them back.
That being said, the way that most Man United fans will remember Ibrahimović is his EFL Cup winning goal. The goal when the Swede first headers away a Southampton corner, clearing a powerful header on goal off the line. From the subsequent cross back into the box, Ibrahimović heads away once more. One big touch, the counter is on. He plays into Rashford. He lays it off. He jogs into the box, waiting for the header. Herrera crosses. United fans celebrate before the cross even reaches Ibrahimović’s head.
Because that’s Zlatan; clinical. 48 games. 28 goals. 2 major trophies. Goals in two finals. A lion. A God. Watching Zlatan was a pleasure.