Not since Eric Cantona have Manchester United been fronted by a character possessing such primal magnetism. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has very quickly become the spiritual leader of the Old Trafford club, giving them the kind of figurehead they have so badly lacked in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson age.
On the face of things, the Swede has been a success in England this season, scoring 15 times in 24 appearances. Signed on an initial one-year deal, talk has recently turned to extending Ibrahimovic’s contract into next season, with Jose Mourinho batting his eyelashes at the 35-year-old.
“I’m totally convinced he is going to stay,” the Man Utd manager said last week. He knows we are going to try again to improve next season and try to share with him, in a fantastic way, probably the last year of his career at the highest level. So I’m convinced that he’s staying. He’s adapted to the club, to the situation.”
But perhaps Mourinho and United should think twice before getting into bed for another season with Ibrahimovic. 15 goals at this stage of the season is a reasonable haul, but he should have more. A lot more. It’s something of an unspoken truth given the way the Man Utd support has taken to the Swede, but Ibrahimovic hasn’t been a success without mitigations at the club.
It was said that Andy Cole always needed three chances to score one goal. The same has been true of Ibrahimovic this season, illustrated by his performance against Watford on Saturday. United recorded a comfortable 2-0 win to keep their unbeaten run going, but it was in spite of Ibrahimovic rather than because of him.
Of course, Ibrahimovic normally plays much better than he did against Watford, when he somehow contrived to spurn every gilt-edged chance presented his way, but the point still stands that in front of goal he has been rather wasteful since joining United. In fact, with Ibrahimovic leading the line Man Utd have the fourth worst chance conversion rate in the Premier League, taking just 12.5% of their opportunities in front of goal.
Between Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, a certain swagger has returned to the Man Utd team. They are no longer anaemic in personality, underlined by the spirit they have shown on the pitch throughout the season, becoming harder to bear, tougher to get the better of. That is a direct result of Ibrahimovic’s arrival.
But on the flip side of that, United have become utterly dependant on Ibrahimovic. The Swede has scored 39% of the Red Devils’ goals in the Premier League this season, with only Romelu Lukaku claiming a higher share of his respective team’s overall goal tally (40%). Is it really so healthy for a club like Man Utd, plotting their way back to the top of the English game, to be so reliant on a a player so well into the twilight of his career?
There can be no doubting that in the short-term signing Ibrahimovic has been a positive for United, but with Antoine Griezmann heavily linked with a move to Old Trafford this summer, and Anthony Martial back on the radar as a future (if not present) superstar, should they take the chance to keep progressing without the Swede? Will he really be worth £260,000 a week as a 36-year-old?
However, with Man Utd on to a good thing under Mourinho maybe they shouldn’t mess with things so much. Cantona was never an especially prolific striker, after all, scoring an average of 13 goals per season over five years for the Old Trafford club (including the nine months he was banned for by The FA, but he was the catalyst for an era of success for Man Utd. He was the character, rather than the player, they needed at that specific time. The same can be said Ibrahimovic.
It’s not that United shouldn’t offer Ibrahimovic a contract extension – he might already have triggered a clause that means Mourinho must offer him another year at the club – but perhaps they should hold off until they have a full season to base a verdict on. Numbers, particularly Ibrahimovic’s, can be misleading.