Love him or hate him, you can’t seem to stop talking about him. Zlatan Ibrahimovic; a man beyond introduction to anyone with even a passing interest in football. A myth unto himself. A career boasting 30* titles (prior to his move, 31 after…29 if you take away the 2 league titles Juventus “won” between 2004 and 2006),countless individual honours, and a top 20 single in Sweden, is to be wound down in the red of Manchester United.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic; a myth to his countrymen, and a legend to himself, is doubling down, and refusing to go quietly. A more than successful stint in Paris earned him the reputation he always craved: a stone cold killer, worthy of mention in the same breath as any of the elite. I will never forget a conversation that took place between younger versions of myself and my friends on the walk to school in 2007: Zlatan Ibrahimovic is as good as Kaka or Ronaldinho on his day…but it’s never his day. It only took a Mourinho move for his day to become more frequent, earning a move to then-European champions Barcelona the following season, only to be, in his eyes, cruelly under-utilised in favour of one Lionel Messi. There are worse players to play second fiddle to, granted, but Zlatan wants to be the star. He once turned down a trial at Arsenal stating “Zlatan doesn’t do auditions”. A short spell with the red (and black) side of Milan followed (of which I saw him play “on his day”, in a Champions League tie vs Barcelona, in which he took the Spanish giants on single handedly), before he opted for a new chapter, in France, with the Oil Princes of Paris Saint-Germain. In four seasons with Europe’s infant pretenders, Zlatan plundered 156 goals in 180 games, in all competitions, completing successive domestic trebles, and leaving a club legend.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is, above all else, a confident man. He has a belief he is the best at what he does, he truly believes he has a case to be mentioned among the elite. And rarely is this confidence misplaced; he scored 50 goals in 51 games last season, for goodness sake. No matter the standard of the league, you can’t deny: that’s impressive. Which makes Manchester United the perfect place for the Zlatan legend to come to a head. For a club so wrapped in it’s “biggest club in the world” narrative, United’s players, until now, have sorely lacked the mentality to back that up. Clubs like Manchester United require a calibre of player with the mentality to match that of the team. A common criticism levelled at United over the past 3 seasons is that opposition sides will look at the starting 11 with exactly the same mindset as they would if they were playing, I don’t know, Stoke City. The element of fear has been lacking, significantly, and that’s clear from United’s record over the last three seasons. There’s a lot to like about the current United side, but there’s a feeling that a lot of the players that line up are almost too respectful of their opposition. United have had success in droves when egos are allowed to be let loose. See George Best at his audacious best; see Eric Cantona, collar popped; see Cristiano Ronaldo successfully attempt 400 step overs in a Carling Cup game. United is a club that demand the very best, and want their players to believe they are the best. And Zlatan, if nothing else, believes he is the best.
And, in this sense, Zlatan Ibrahimovic cannot really fail at Manchester United. By simply existing in the same environment as Old Trafford, Zlatan is bringing more to the table than most of the current United set up. Numbers at this stage of his career don’t matter to him, and to be perfectly honest they don’t matter to United either. United need faces of a new era, they need reputations to match the reputation (you may recall they tried this with di Maria and Falcao but this is different). A fun, possibly fake, stat doing the rounds at the moment is that United made enough from Zlatan shirts in 2 weeks to fund the Pogba signing. Above all else: United need a player as cocksure as Zlatan to mould the next wave of United attackers. Humbleness can only get you so far in football, and sometimes you need to embrace your ego. United will be hoping this rubs off on the likes of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, as the 18 and 20 year olds look to push on from the very stable foundations that were their debut season.
Success for the Zlatan/United partnership goes beyond goals and trophies (although those are very nice…please don’t think I’m giving you a free pass here); it’s about rebuilding an entire empire from its very core. You see, Ibrahimovic has already succeeded as a signing. He’s already achieved the majority of what he was brought into do: while Mourinho and his men set about creating a United side so formidable the world will stand notice, you’re still talking about Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Marcus Rashford can continue to learn his trade, and try to elevate his game to a point where he he can be a viable first choice striker for club and country every week, because you’re still talking about Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And all the while, he’ll still bag a few goals for his own personal collection.
A lightning rod for attention and the ultimate team player at the same time; if it comes off, his contributions, both on and off the field, will be felt far into the future. Even when he’s long gone, love him or hate him, you’ll all still be talking about Zlatan Ibrahimovic.