On Sunday, once the dust had settled on the first trophy of the Jose Mourinho era at Manchester United, a number of talking points remained. Chief among them was whether Zlatan Ibrahimovic can have the same impact on the current side Eric Cantona had when he crossed the Pennines in November 1992.

From the moment he arrived at United, Ibrahimovic’s arrogance and swagger coupled with his exquisite technique triggered memories of Cantona and, in the last few days, pundits have fallen over themselves to either vocally support or swiftly dismiss the notion that the Swede can emulate his French predecessor.

Both arguments are valid, given that there are  just as many similarities between the two players as there are differences, but both are also missing the point.

Cantona is widely regarded as the catalyst, the final piece of the jigsaw that turned Sir Alex Ferguson’s side from nearly men into an all conquering machine. Meanwhile, though he is maturing like the finest of wines, at 35 years of age Ibrahimovic can not have the same long-term impact on United that Cantona did.

But he might not need to either.

Even if he were to extend his contract for another season – which seems from far from guaranteed at the moment – it’s unlikely he would carry on beyond that.

In contrast, Cantona remained at the club for five seasons, having joined when he was barely 26.

Accordingly, the critics say, while the Frenchman had half a decade to influence his younger teammates, Ibrahimovic will have a much shorter amount of time.

While that is true, there is another crucial factor that must be considered in the equation. When Cantona moved to Old Trafford, of the Class of ’92 only Ryan Giggs featured regularly in the first team.

David Beckham, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt only made their debut for United respectively two months and two weeks before Cantona’s arrival, while Paul Scholes didn’t make his first professional appearance until 1994.

Conversely, Paul Pogba has already played in a Champions League and European Championship final and has four Serie A titles under his belt at the age of 23. Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial had already won the FA Cup before Ibrahimovic joined the club.

That is not to say that the current crop of youngsters are better than that of 25 years ago, but the fact some of the younger member of the squad have already won trophies can only enhance Ibrahimovic’s impact.

While not always performing at the peak of his powers – but then, great strikers seldom need to – he has influenced games more than many would’ve expected and has so far scored 26 goals in all competitions.

Sunday was a perfect example of Ibrahimovic’s importance. A game United should’ve lost was bent to the Swede’s will and, in that respect, him and Cantona are cut from the same cloth.

But there is another, more striking, similarity between the two.

Like his illustrious predecessor, the former Inter Milan striker has galvanised his teammates, who have queued to praise the 35-year-old’s enormous gravitas in the dressing room.

Over the last three seasons, United have lacked imposing characters on the pitch as desperately as they have lacked trophies. Where some of his teammates looked to shirk challenges, Ibrahimovic, like Cantona, tackles them heads on. 

Even more importantly, the Swede’s approach has extended beyond the confines of the dressing room and has provided the fans with the sort of cult hero they had missed since Cristiano Ronaldo.

He might not be the long-term answer to United’s issues and he might not have the same impact Cantona had, but in the current circumstances Ibrahimovic’s presence could still help shape the future of the club.

As the song reverberating around Wembley and Kilburn on Sunday went, “he gets the Reds excited.” He does and there’s plenty of scope for that.




------------
The RoM 2019-20 Season Preview is available for just £6. It includes an EXCLUSIVE interview with Rafael Da Silva, a Q&A with the country's top journalists, articles by brilliant United writers, and so much more. All profit goes to Trafford Macmillan so please support this fantastic cause.