Zlatan Ibrahimovic: good or bad fit?

Written for uMAXit football,

“When I am tired I will let you know where I will go.” Once again, the enigmatic Zlatan Imbrahimovic toyed with press, and fans of Manchester United; yet, it seems inevitable he will join up with the man he once said he “would kill for”, at Old Trafford. Would this be a shrewd or dangerous signing for Manchester United?

Where Zlatan goes, goals invariably follow. It sounds so simple, but goals are what the United faithful crave, after a torturous season of unadventurous football. The Swede was second only to Luis Suarez this season, in terms of goals, scoring 50 in 51 appearances for PSG. Indeed, Zlatan is a model of consistency, scoring 20 or more goals in four of the last five seasons. There’s no doubting that the out-of-contract forward would provide a daunting threat up-front.

Having said that, 38 of last season’s 51 goals came in Ligue 1, a league notorious for its defensive weaknesses. Thus, this raises doubts over whether Zlatan would be able to replicate his exploits in the Premier League, where defences are more robust, and superior. If one harbours any doubts about the gap in quality between Ligue 1 and the Premier League, the fact that there will be more players in EURO 2016 representing the Championship than Ligue 1 should sink such scepticism.

Whilst Zlatan may face difficulty in being as prolific in the Premier League, his arrival would provide an alternative benefit, in the unlikely form of Marcus Rashford. The 18 year-old has exploded onto the scene this season, demonstrating an uncanny instinct for the net – scoring with his first touch on his Europa League, Premier League, FA Cup and England debut. Zlatan could be just what the academy graduate needs: a wise, experienced head to nurture his talent, someone to learn from. An Imbrahimovic – Rashford partnership could blossom and be pivotal in the precocious talent’s development; Zlatan’s composed demeanour complementing Rashford’s youthful exuberance and ferocious pace.

Yet, where goals carve out a path, controversy cements it. Training ground bust-ups, reckless punches and kicks during matches and threats all form part of the Swede’s record. Not only could Zlatan’s proneness for a verbal outburst damage Rashford’s confidence, but it could punctuate the harmony of a squad. Team-mates do not need to be friends, despite the affection shown between ‘MSN’, but they need to respect each other; Ibrahimovic’s palpable sense of disrespect could fracture the solidarity of a dressing-room, causing a rot, inexorably leading to poor performances and poor results.

Such controversies are often symptomatic of his ego, a confidence that never fails to hand the press and social media eccentric one-liners, but something which could be to the detriment of the team his is playing for. It is also evident that his narcissism has led him to believe he is bigger than Manchester United – the fashion in which he is playing with the United fan-base clearly points to this. When players believe they are bigger than a club of the stature of United, then it is never a recipe for success, in the long-term.

The flip-side of his ego is that he will bring character back to Manchester United. Reminiscent of Eric Cantona, Zlatan would inject swagger and belief, re-instilling the Red Devil’s missing fear factor. Leading from the front, his nonchalance towards the opposition would infect and spread amongst the United squad reigniting the confidence that was so prevalent in Sir Alex Ferguson’s time: namely, that they are bigger and better than most, possessing the capabilities to beat anyone.

For all his self-confidence, Zlatan is still largely dependent on others for his own success. 48% of his touches in the Champions League where in central positions, as he refrains from searching for the ball out-wide – he is reliant upon the service of others to give him the ball in central areas, for him to then be able to work his magic. Whilst there is little wrong with a striker remaining in a striking position, it does leave him vulnerable if wide-men and creative players fail to reach him. If the last five seasons are anything to go by, then Zlatan will struggle as the service from the flanks have been poor. Hopefully, for fans of United and Zlatan, this will change under Jose Mourinho with his preference for a 4-2-3-1 system which allows two payers to operate in the wide areas of the pitch, providing crosses for the striker.

However fit and agile, thanks to his martial-arts training Zlatan is, there’s no denying he is ageing. If he is to join United, he will do so at the age of 35. The demanding nature of the Premier League, which is seldom kind to those who are on the wrong side of 30, will hamper Zlatan’s ability to play week-in-week-out, and his chances of continuing for more than two years. Consequently, he is a short-term fix to United’s goal-scoring problems. Is this really what United need, a player to smooth over the cracks, but leave them just as exposed upon his departure? Zlatan would offer a veneer of goal-scoring prowess, only for the façade to be lifted. Yet, the counter-argument finds itself in Marcus Rashford – as mentioned before, two years under the wing of Zlatan could transform him from a prodigy to a reliable and consistent front-man.

Zlatan has a pronounced dislike, bordering on hate, for Manchester City’s new boss Pep Guardiola. As does Jose Mourinho. If the Manchester derby has lost some of its spice and heat in the past few years, you can be sure that a Zlatan – Mourinho partnership would fan the dying flames into a wildfire.

A serial winner; ego-maniac; proven goal-scorer; magnet for controversy. Zlatan’s eccentrics could be the perfect fit, as Peter Smeichel believes, saying he was “born for Manchester United”, or he could manifest into another underwhelming marquee signing, following the road constructed by Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao.  If he does end up donning the red of Manchester United, one thing is for sure: he will bring fire and excitement to the Premier League.

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