Manchester has become the centre of attraction ahead of the 2016/17 English Premier League season, which is expected to be enthralling and mercurial. With just six weeks to go before the season gets underway, the English clubs have started making their moves in the 2016 summer transfer window and the 1st of July turned out to be an eventful day – which, on its own, would be an understatement. In East Manchester, Josep Guardiola reunited with Manuel Agudo Duran, prominently known and called as Nolito, on July 1st – the opening day of the transfer window – a day which also saw the Mourinho-Ibrahimovic reunion materialise just 12.2 miles away at the Aon Training Complex in Carrington. Manchester United want to regain the hegemony in Manchester and England too, while Manchester City want to continue their uptrend. The question is, can the build-up to the brand new season, get any bigger than what it is?
May 27th, 2016, was the day on which Jose Mourinho became Manchester United’s new manager succeeding Louis van Gaal, who could not save his job despite winning the FA Cup just five nights earlier. Ibrahimovic (34), after winning the French Ligue 1 title with Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) for the fourth consecutive season, revealed that he will be leaving the club as a free agent at the end of the 2015/16 campaign. And, with Mourinho taking over the reigns from van Gaal at Old Trafford, there were implications that this duo, who were together at Inter Milan for the 2008/09 season, could be reunited.
This past Thursday, the staunch speculation that the 6′ 5″ centre-forward could be playing for Manchester United next season, came close to reality when Ibrahimovic took to Instagram to reveal where he would be plying his trade next season, after seeing out his contract at the Parc des Princes. The precise post was: “Time to let the world know. My next destination is @ManchesterUnited #iamcoming.”
With Ibrahimovic confirmed as a Manchester United player yesterday and the Mourinho-Ibrahimovic reunion materialising subsequently, let us look at what the Swede can bring to the 20-time English champions and also understand why this transfer is barely a surprise!
What will Zlatan Ibrahimovic bring to Manchester United?
Arguably the biggest negative of van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford was how blunt United were, in the final-third of the pitch. Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, who were a part of the United squad inherited by van Gaal from David Moyes, were jettisoned, and the Red Devils became bereft of a mobile centre-forward who could provide a threat in the air and also, make runs beyond the opposition defence. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie seemed to have come to the end of their honeymoon period and this duo, who had terrorised Premier League defences just a couple of seasons back in United’s title-winning 2012/13 campaign, became anonymous, literally.
United lacked penetration and van Gaal’s decision to bring another immobile centre-forward in Radamel Falcao, on a year-long loan deal from Monaco, was simply befuddling and did not have the enviable effect either. The Colombian marksman scored just four league goals in 26 appearances, and with van Persie and Rooney conspiring to score a mere 28 goals, United just did not have goals in them to trouble or caution their opponents.
Now, Ibrahimovic is not an upgrade on any of the quartet mentioned above and Ibrahimovic’s role in the Manchester United squad is an interesting topic to discuss. The former PSG striker can only play as a No. 9 and nowhere else, unlike Anthony Martial and Rooney, so how will Mourinho utilise the Swede?
Ibrahimovic was the leading goal scorer in the league for PSG, in every one of his four seasons – his tallies being 38 (15/16), 19 (14/15), 26 (13/14), and 22 (12/13) – at the Parc des Princes. Ligue 1 is not on par with the Premier League in terms of competitiveness, but Ibrahimovic thrived in the presence of creative players such as Marco Verratti, Angel di Maria, Javier Pastore, to name a few. He was also supported well by Edinson Cavani and Lucas Moura – who were used as forwards in PSG’s 4-3-3 system, by the now former PSG coach Laurent Blanc. The reason Ibrahimovic isn’t an upgrade for Manchester United is because he too is largely immobile. What he will, however, bring to the 2015/16 FA Cup winners’ arsenal is intelligent centre-forward play.
At PSG, with the likes of Lucas, Cavani and di Maria (last season) making runs beyond him and providing Ibrahimovic with multiple passing options, he was able to drop into pockets of space and play those defence-splitting passes. So, the Manchester United Ibrahimovic cannot be deemed as a goal scorer alone and should neither be judged on the number of goals he scores. Instead, Ibrahimovic’s ability to create goals and consequently bring the best out of his teammates, also has to be taken into account. The PSG Ibrahimovic created a total of 184 chances, which included 35 assists, in the league during his four seasons at the club, and his tally of 13 assists in the 2015/16 Ligue 1 campaign was second only to di Maria’s 18.
On the flip side, Ibrahimovic could make United predictable. He is very much in the mould of Falcao, who can be extremely ruthless inside the 18-yard box, but outside it, the Colombian does not really thrive as a striker. Ibrahimovic, likewise, will give United a physical presence and make them deadly in the air – one of his innate traits as a tall player who will be a threat at set-pieces consequently – but outside the 18-yard box, he might well be neutralised. Because of his obvious limitations and Mourinho’s preference to set his team up to play on the counter-attack, predominantly, I think Ibrahimovic will not start all games. Instead, Martial will probably be United’s first-choice striker and supported by Rooney behind him, as the main playmaker.
Why Mourinho’s move for Ibrahimovic has barely been surprising?
Simply because the Swede is a Mourinho-type centre-forward, with Didier Drogba and Diego Costa being prime examples of.
Drogba thrived in Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 system during the Portuguese’s first stint at Stamford Bridge. When Mourinho returned to England in the 2013 summer, again as Chelsea manager, he took only one season before reuniting with the Ivorian, even though the reunion lasted for just a year and Drogba went to play for Montreal Impact in Major League Soccer (MLS).
Ibrahimovic reminds me of the same, and the question for him is whether he can utilise his strength like Drogba did, to disconcert opposition centre-backs, make his presence felt and create openings for himself and for his teammates. Ibrahimovic will probably have to work hard too when his team are not in possession – something which Drogba was willing to and Mourinho expects from his players.
If Ibrahimovic can carry over his goal scoring exploits for PSG from last season, he can be a crucial player for his new club, Manchester United. But I very much doubt him being ahead of Martial in the pecking order and I also believe that Martial could provide United with a lot more options next season if he plays upfront, on his own. Ibrahimovic has his limitations, with his lack of pace being the most conspicuous, but his experience coupled with physical strength and ability to link play, mean that he will make United more of an attacking threat than they have been for the last two seasons, under van Gaal.