Football

Is Ibrahimovic a one-man army at Manchester United?

When Manchester United signed the maverick Swede in July 2016 on a Bosman transfer, many had written him off even before he kicked a ball. His age (34 at the time of signing), the pace and physicality of the Premier League were the factors expected to make Ibrahimovic's work cut out at his new club. The fact that Ibrahimovic was embracing English football on the back of a splendid four-year spell with PSG for whom he scored an amazing 156 goals in 180 appearances didn't matter much down to the apparent gulf in quality of Ligue 1 and Premier League football. On the other hand, United supporters in two seasons under Louis van Gaal got accustomed to expensive flops as well. Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Memphis Depay, all flattered to deceive during their time at Old Trafford and it shouldn't come as a surprise if a majority of the supporters had their reservations over United signing a player who may be a tad too old to cut it in the Premier League.

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Fast-forward 8 months and it's a completely different scenario. Ibrahimovic's individual brilliance brought Manchester United their first major piece of silverware of the season less than a fortnight ago, making Jose Mourinho the first-ever United boss to win a trophy in his debut season. In a final where the Red Devils were evidently the second-best team for almost the entirety of the match, 'Ibracadabra' magic came to the rescue. After winning the Community Shield with a late headed strike back in August, Zlatan repeated those heroics once again to help United lift their 5th EFL Cup title. The Swede has certainly secured a hero status for himself among the United faithful for years to come after playing his heart out for the team in the final. He was giving his everything during the dying stages of the game to help United get over the line. There was a moment after the final whistle when members of United coaching staff had to hold him up with Ibrahimovic seemingly drained of energy to even stand – sort of visuals making a player to be endeared even more by the supporters. Those who were questioning him at the beginning of the season are now running out of superlatives in his praise.
 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the winning goal in Man United's triumphant EFL Cup final

 

But in the hindsight, it doesn't look as rosy as it should. Despite having proven match-winners like Paul Pogba and Juan Mata on their side, United struggled to exert themselves on the big occasion. Of course, fatigue had its role behind United putting up a below-par show by their standards as the EFL Cup final was their fourth match in a span of 15 days. Southampton weren't competitive all this while and enjoyed a warm-weather training camp in Spain to prepare for the biggest game of their season. Hadn't it been for Ibrahimovic's heroics, the Mancunians would certainly have ended up on the losing side. So the question arises: Is Ibrahimovic a one-man army at Manchester United?

 

Looking at the Swede's history with his former clubs, Ibrahimovic has developed this ability to carry the team on his shoulders since embracing his 30s. He was the go-to man at Milan, PSG and now, at Manchester United. The stats do have his back as well. The above table shows the season stats of 17 United players who have either scored or assisted or did both to make into this exclusive list. Ibrahimovic leads the goalscoring charts by a country mile with 26 strikes – nearly thrice the number of goals scored by his nearest rival Juan Mata. If the 35-year-old is to sit out now until the season end, the Swede is still most likely to end up as the club's top scorer for the ongoing campaign. Glancing at the assists column, only Wayne Rooney (10) and Ander Herrera (8) have provided more final balls leading to a goal than Ibrahimovic, who sits third with 7 assists. Those good in calculations would have counted out the total of the goals column, which comes out to be 81. Add a Bradley Jones own goal (scored in the 4-0 Europa League win over Feyenoord) to make it 82 which is United's goal haul across all competitions thus far. Ibrahimovic has been involved in 33 of those, which makes his share of contribution a shade over 40% in United's season goal haul. None of the remaining listed United players comes closer to him in this regard.

 

GOALS AND ASSISTS CONTRIBUTION

PLAYER NAME

GOALS

ASSISTS

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

26

7

Juan Mata

9

4

Anthony Martial

7

6

Paul Pogba

7

5

Henrikh Mkhitaryan

7

5

Marcus Rashford 

7

2

Wayne Rooney

5

10

Jesse Lingard

4

3

Chris Smalling 

2

1

Marouane Fellaini

2

0

Ander Herrera 

1

8

Daley Blind

1

2

Michael Carrick

1

1

Bastian Schweinsteiger

1

1

Marcos Rojo

1

0

Antonio Valencia

0

6

Matteo Darmian

0

1

 

A further detailed study of Ibrahimovic's contribution in different competitions provides us with more intriguing outputs. Ibrahimovic is the club's top scorer in Premier League, Europa League and recently concluded EFL Cup. Manchester United have taken to the field on 45 separate occasions this season, with the Swede involved in 40 of those – a high amongst all United players. Ibrahimovic has spent a total of 3392 minutes on the pitch over those 40 appearances which are approximately 84% of the total first team minutes, yet another club high for the campaign. That's not all, the 'Big Man' is also United's creator-in-chief with 81 chances created. Those claiming United's dependence on the 35-year-old turns out to be no tall talk.

 

DISSECTING IBRAHIMOVIC'S CONTRIBUTION

COMPETITION

APPS

MINS PLAYED

GOALS

ASSISTS

TOTAL
TEAM GOALS

PL

25

2250

15

4

39

UEL

8

629

5

2

17

FA CUP

1

28

1

0

10

EFL CUP

5

395

4

1

14

COMM. SHIELD

1

90

1

0

2

 

Historically, United have never benefitted from this one-man dependence, the prime example of it being Ruud Van Nistelrooy. The Dutch sniper was always among the thick of goals during his five-year spell in the north-west of England but Sir Alex Ferguson's over-reliance on his star striker for inspiration only earned him a mere 4 trophies all that while. Like any successful team, the Red Devils have always excelled when they had goalscoring threats available to them all over the pitch. The fans have got every right to revel in their club's recent success for the time being, but the bigger picture says there's still a lot to be done if United are to achieve their prime objective of winning the league and possibly, getting the taste of continental glory as well. And with Ibrahimovic banned for next 3 domestic matches following an FA charge, Manchester United are likely to face the bitter reality of how much their over-dependence on a single player is hurting them. 

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