In football, as in so many walks of life, the past often deeply impacts upon the future. At Manchester United this has led to a laudable preoccupation with developing academy graduates for the senior squad, a desire for the team to produce attacking football and, following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013, the appointment of a wholly unqualified Scot as manager simply because he came from the same place and supposedly shared the same values as the greatest British manager in history. The number 7 shirt has taken on significance having been worn by a long line of brilliant and/or inspirational midfielders or wide men and, thanks to the legacy of Eric Cantona, United fans have a deep fascination and love for an enigmatic, technically gifted forward.
That last point explains why the club’s supporters embraced and celebrated with gusto the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free transfer in the summer of 2016. If there is a modern-day footballer most like Eric the King it is Ibra, with his powerful physique, vast ego and extravagant technical gifts. No matter that he joined in his mid-thirties. In his final season at PSG the Swede had scored a ridiculous 50 times in 51 games. United, at a low ebb again, needed a goal scorer and Jose Mourinho, keen to sign Paul Pogba for huge money, saw an opportunity to pick up a top class player with whom he had previously worked on a free transfer.
We can only imagine the conversation, but it is not hard to come to the belief that selling the acquisition of Zlatan to Executive Vice President Ed Woodward was not difficult. When David Gill departed as Chief Executive in the same summer as Sir Alex’s retirement, the bridge between the past and the future of the Glazer ownership was broken and in appointing their own man the transition to the business entirely overlapping with the football team was complete. Woodward spoke – and continues to wax lyrical – about the power of the commercial institution that is United to recruit stars and briefed journalists regularly of his desire to sign big names, as much for their ability to make money as to perform on the pitch. It is a preoccupation that has so far had limited success, with Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao struggling under Louis Van Gaal and Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez yet to perform to their potential for Mourinho. In that summer of 2013 goals and clean sheets became brand power, social media interactions, followers and hashtags. In that context one can imagine the club EVP’s eyes lighting up at mention of Zlatan and it is impossible to deny that in revenue terms he delivered, playing to the crowd, adding glamour to a jaded club and squad and selling more shirts than any other player in the Premier League. For twelve months at least, Ibra became a hugely valuable asset.
On the pitch his immediate contribution surprised many, including this writer, because the Premier League is a significant step up from Ligue 1 and, frankly, we are programmed to believe that players are on a very slippery slope from their early thirties onwards. Even having watched Ibrahimovic perform admirably in France and the Champions League, there was a nagging fear that the move was a hell of a risk for both the player and the team. In reality we need not have worried as the Swede started scoring immediately and didn’t stop, ultimately hitting 28 goals in 46 games in all competitions. There was a sense of good fortune that we were having the privilege of watching a truly great player at our club, at a time when there was little to shout about on the pitch.
His brilliance was not without caveats, however. In a team that struggled to function on the pitch and was, in particular, often ponderous and cumbersome in attack, many felt that the Swede slowed play down, dropping deep in search of the ball and taking too many touches with his back to goal, failing to take full advantage of the pace and guile around him. As is often the case with his on-pitch leaders, Mourinho played him constantly, irrespective of form, which sometimes frustrated when the likes of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were pacy alternatives. Regardless, Zlatan’s contribution was certainly positive overall, particularly when his two goals, including a late headed winner, in the League Cup final against Southampton are taken into account. It was, for that first season, most definitely worth it.
Ibrahimovic also made a big contribution to United’s Europa League victory, but it was his knee ligament injury sustained in the quarter final against Anderlecht that eventually changed the narrative. Ruled out for months there was talk of an early recovery, based largely on the narrative that the Swede is something of a physical freak, and regular Instagram videos of hard workouts and cryptic messages about inhuman regeneration fed the expectation of a full and speedy return to football. With his contract having expired in the summer United had the luxury of being able to observe his recuperation – carried out at the club -at close quarters and make an informed decision as to the player’s future without having to shell out vast wages in the meantime.
Our attitudes to footballers are often binary. A signing was either a ‘hit’ or a ‘flop’, a success or a failure, inspired or a costly mistake. It was at this point, however, that Ibrahimovic uniquely transcended those two outcomes. Cantona would have been proud. United, perhaps under pressure from Mourinho or emboldened by Zlatan’s freakish physique or claims of recovery, decided to give him a new one-year contract on relatively big money, which he duly signed on 24th August. It was to be a costly act of folly, as the player did not start a game until 20th December, immediately felt that his knee was not right and, after 7 appearances and a single goal in a League Cup defeat at Bristol City, was withdrawn from first team contention, never to return. This week, with a move to LA Galaxy near to completion, United released Ibrahimovic from his contract, no doubt much to the relief of Ed Woodward, and were left to reflect on the cost of believing the player’s own hype. They were fooled by a lion who could no longer roar.
And so Ibrahimovic leaves us, heading for warmer and more comfortable climes, with some wonderful memories and a feeling of privilege at having seen one of the best players of his generation play for our club, if only briefly. He was the charismatic, ego-driven, iconic forward that history has taught United fans to crave and adore, the ideal character for a club constantly in search of a footballer imbued with the spirit of Cantona.. As with his short sojourn at Barcelona under Pep Guardiola, there were those who felt that his style did not compliment the players around him, but his contribution to what was ultimately a successful season was significant and his personality gelled with many in the changing room. The likes of Marcus Rashford will hopefully have learned much from him. But, like Cantona, there was a costly kick – literally in the case of the Frenchman – with player and club appearing to be premature in theatrical claims of recovery. It was ultimately a costly error, but in keeping with his enigmatic, unconventional shtick, the outcome was unique. Ibrahimoviç achieved another first in a long and relentlessly successful career, in being the first Manchester United player in the binary football world to be both a great value signing and a pricey mistake.