Manchester United have shown they no longer need Zlatan Ibrahimovic the player - but could still use the man

Mark Critchley
Zlatan Ibrahimovic could return to first-team action for Manchester United by early November

It looks like Jose Mourinho is going to get his fourth signing after all. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is close to becoming a Manchester United player again, just over four months since his long and trophy-laden career looked to have been cut short by serious injury. At 35 years of age, Ibrahimovic was only ever going to be given another chance if his recovery went perfectly and the evidence so far suggests that it could not have gone any better.

The only problem is that United’s start to the season could hardly have gone much better either. Mourinho’s side certainly do not seem to be missing Ibrahimovic on the pitch with two emphatic 4-0 wins over West Ham United and Swansea City propelling them to the Premier League summit, and it is not just the margin of the victories that has been impressive but the manner of them too.

The opening goal of United’s new league campaign provides a case in point. After Nemanja Matic’s dogged midfield work has helped to turn over possession, Marcus Rashford picks up the ball in his own half. Ahead of him, Romelu Lukaku is waiting, pushing ahead, observing how the runs of Rashford and a marauding Matic are pulling West Ham’s backline around the pitch. At just the right moment, he points to where he wants the ball, darts in behind Pedro Obiang and then crashes a shot in off the upright.

That type of goal, born out of a rapier counter and intelligent movement, was seldom seen at Old Trafford last season when a certain Swede led the line. That is not a criticism of Ibrahimovic, whose first year in English football as a 35-year-old can only be considered a success. He scored decisive goals in 12 games for United, including the EFL Cup winners at Wembley, and amassed an overall tally of 28. Considering his lay-off at the end of the campaign, it was a more than impressive record. 

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Yet look back on those goals and not many look much like Lukaku’s first against West Ham. If not bundled in at close range by a head or a hooked boot, they are powered home from range through a mass of bodies. A few, like the late winner at Selhurst Park last December, see him break through the lines but those stand out among what is otherwise the collection of a target man. On some days, Ibrahimovic’s style was effective and it proved particularly useful when United were chasing games. On most others, it robbed their attack of any fluency.

United have now found that fluency. The victory over a well-drilled Swansea at the weekend was not quite as impressive as the first over West Ham, but the shift in gear to score three late goals and seal the points was the sort of the thing United rarely looked like doing last year. It is not like they are sacrificing any power in the penalty area either. Look at Lukaku’s second against West Ham and perhaps the biggest worry of all for Ibrahimovic is that United have a frontman who can both play on the counter and provide an aerial presence.

Manchester United's striker Romelu Lukaku celebrates scoring the team's second goal during the English Premier League football match against Swansea City August 19, 2017

Where does the Swede fit in then? The danger is that once he is available again in the winter, he is shoe-horned into this side in Lukaku’s absence without a significant change in style. Mourinho would obviously attempt to play to his strengths but that, in turn may shackle those around him and see the stodginess of last season return. Paul Pogba, who laid on chance after chance for Ibrahimovic last season, has thrived with more movement and options ahead of him.

The answer must be that in his second United spell, Ibrahimovic will have to offer more off the pitch than on it. Ever since his arrival from Paris Saint-Germain last year, Mourinho has talked up the Swede’s influence on the squad’s younger players and as The Independent revealed last week, a coaching role has now been discussed as part of these contract negotiations. The feeling is that Ibrahimovic’s experience and expertise, let alone his rapport with his team-mates and relationship with the manager, are valuable assets. As Pogba revealed on the pre-season tour: “He’s a big leader because he’s still in the team, even when he’s not playing he’s a leader outside of the pitch.”

The early signs suggest that United may have lost their need for Ibrahimovic the player, but as the man himself will doubtless tell you, he has always been much more than that.

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