What would a younger Ibrahimovic have been like at United?

Iwan Lehnert  |  26th July 2018

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s time at Manchester United was fleeting, less than a full season of ridiculous sound bites and a plethora of goals, but the Swedish striker made a real impact in his short stay at Old Trafford.

His signing and his mere presence at United, confirmed a few months after Jose Mourinho took charge of the club in 2016, brought a little fun to a club that had spent two years nigh-on starved of the stuff under Louis van Gaal’s reign of ultimate football stoicism.

The combination of frequent goals and equal parts smarm and charm made the Swede a wonderful antidote to the relative sterility that had preceded him, and whilst his injury paved the way for the ever-improving Romelu Lukaku, there was still a hint of sadness that his United career was ended not on his terms, but by that nasty knee injury sustained in the Europa League knockout stages.

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Ibrahimovic’s presence at United’s pre-season training session in Los Angeles this week was a nice reminder of a simpler time when the self-styled lion wandered around Old Trafford, tapping in goals with (mostly) relative ease and mentioning powerful a specific, powerful mammal every other sentence. His comments to United’s official site were more of interest, however;

“I feel sorry for the fans – if they’d seen me younger, they’d have seen a different lion. For the Premier League, it would have been dangerous, as I would have eaten them for breakfast; instead, I took them for lunch. But I came: they wanted me, I gave them me and I took over. Been there and done that.”

Typical Zlatan, really: complete confidence in his own abilities, puffing his chest out with every single word with a simultaneous twinkle in his eye. One wonders what it would have been like to have the man at Old Trafford earlier in his career, too. Where would United be with his insatiable knack of scoring goals wherever he goes several years ago?

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Of course, he’d rather conduct a modest interview without a single joke or tongue-in-cheek comment than turn out for a side managed by Louis van Gaal again, but given that he was still able to smack in 28 goals in his first ever season in English football at the age of 34, what a pleasure it could have been to have had him in those first few years in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson wilderness.

Back in 2013, United were crying out for leaders, personalities and quality; without the Scot, this was frequently directionless team, shorn of inspiration and with many of the heroes of the previous Premier League title-winning campaign a shadow of their former selves under David Moyes.

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Think back to moments like the Allianz Arena after Patrice Evra’s goal, or to Upton Park when United fell behind against West Ham with Champions League qualification in their hands, or to the worst penalty shootout in history against Sunderland in the League Cup semi-final; what we would have given for a little inspiration, or leadership in those moments. Ibrahimovic could also have struggled under Ferguson’s setup, of course, but his one real season at the club offered enough that there was plenty to regret that he didn’t arrive at the club sooner, even with his drawbacks.

Of the biggest issues with the former Barcelona, Paris Saint Germain and AC Milan striker was his surprising profligacy, which could have seen him notch at least another ten goals had he been a little sharper in front of goal. Given his age, it’s difficult to be too critical of this, but his lack of movement became a bigger issue as United’s season wore on, and made them a much more restricted proposition for opposing sides to deal with as a result.

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But even with that, Ibrahimovic was a huge reason that United ended the 2016/17 campaign with two pieces of silverware. A Man of the Match performance against Southampton in the Capital One Cup final was crowned with a late header that was destined for the back of the net as soon as his feet left the ground, and five goals were contributed to that season’s Europa League campaign which led to a wonderful, victorious night against Ajax in the final in Stockholm. Sure, it’s a team game, and the man himself would be the first to say that, but Ibrahimovic can surely be noted for his large contributions to the season that seemingly put United back on track, and back in the trophies.

Of course, with the big man now plying his trade in the MLS at LA Galaxy, and due to a little thing called the passage of time, we’ll never know how much Ibrahimovic would have contributed to a United side that has only recently shown signs of wanting to regain its previous identity. Still, his contribution for that short spell shouldn’t be overlooked. United fans may only have seen a glimpse of Ibrahimovic’s ability, but it was still worth the wait.

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