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.
Fast-forward 18 months and it’s a completely different scenario. Ibrahimovic’s individual brilliance brought Manchester United their first major piece of silverware of the season last season, 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.
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 struggle to exert themselves on the big occasion.
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.
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.
With Zlatan failing to recapture his form post his 7-month injury lay off and Romelu Lukaku failing to deliver when it matters the most, Manchester United are likely to face the bitter reality of how much their over-dependence on a single player is hurting them.
Graphics courtesy: Betfy