When Zlatan Ibrahimovic signed for Manchester United in the summer, no one really knew what to expect. In these times of extreme reaction, when everyone is either a fraud or a genius and there is little in-between, there was no denying that United had signed a genuine superstar.
Yet there was also a sense that that superstar was past his best, that he was putting himself out to pasture after a glorious career, and that he would no longer be able to cope with the Premier League. The English have long eyed Ibrahimovic with scepticism, unsure about his true ability and convinced he would have been found out long ago had he ever played his football in this country.
He’s not the only one. We may never know whether Lionel Messi could do it on a rainy night in Stoke and, after all, isn’t that the acid test for any footballer? “So you’ve got a few Champions League medals. Who cares? Let’s see how you fare against Charlie Adam.” Chances are, Messi would cope pretty well in England, just as Cristiano Ronaldo did before him and just as Ibrahimovic is doing now.
The reason is simple. These are the elite – members of that exclusive club Sir Alex Ferguson referred to as “top, top players.” You get the impression that Ibrahimovic has probably gone down well in the Ferguson household and not only because of his rampant goal scoring form of late. He’s a very Ferguson era player, and he carries himself like a United player should.
Indeed, the Swede’s demeanour is reminiscent of the man with whom he was compared when he arrived at the club. Eric Cantona is one of the all-time greats, revered within Old Trafford, his name sung by United fans, on a weekly basis, to this day. It would be foolish to suggest that Ibrahimovic has had – or will have – anything like the impact of his French predecessor, affectionately known as The King in these parts, yet there are striking similarities between the two.
Like Cantona, Ibrahimovic plays with the kind of swagger Ferguson loved, strutting about the pitch like the whole event has been laid on just for him. Back straight, shoulders wide, head held high, like Cantona, Ibrahimovic always stands to his full height. Such arrogance cannot be taught or faked. It develops over a lifetime and there are few who possess it in such abundance as these two players. Perhaps ‘pride’ is as apt a word as ‘arrogance’ in their cases.
It gives them huge presence both on and off the pitch, as the fabled Class of ’92 will attest. Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs et al have long spoken of Cantona’s influence on them, of his incredible drive to better himself as a player, leading by example by staying behind after training. Such commitment is inspiring and, if Ibrahimovic’s unbelievable fitness is anything to go by, it is safe to say he, too, is putting in the extra hours. It must be surreal and exciting for youngsters such as Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to find themselves playing alongside one of the legends of the modern game, and it can only benefit them.
To watch the Swede live is to watch a master of his craft at work. Not averse to the dark arts, he is constantly in the ear of defenders, winding them up, ‘letting them know he’s there’ (as my dad would say), intimidating them and generally making their lives a misery. He must be horrible to play against. Yet it is not just power on which he relies. He is an extremely artful striker, his runs subtle and highly intelligent, gleaned from years of experience, during which he’s honed his talents into a razor sharp blade. Even during his recent ‘barren’ spell, what was most striking were the gilt-edged chances he missed. Yet he had to be there to miss them and it always felt inevitable that, at some point, he would rediscover his clinical touch.
Jose Mourinho clearly thought so, continuing to pick him despite calls for him to be dropped, and it is paying off. Ibrahimovic has scored ten goals in his last nine games and been described as a ‘superman’ by his manager and ‘like red wine’ by himself. Whether he really is getting better with age is open to debate but he certainly appears to have now got the measure of the Premier League and it must be a daunting task going up against him.
It was a risk bringing Ibrahimovic to these shores at this point in his career, yet it is a risk that is, so far, paying off. He brings with him an aura that has been sorely lacking in this United side over recent years, and an abundance of guile and experience that no amount of training can instil.
Signing ready-made superstars doesn’t always work. In the case of the timeless Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it appears to be working a treat.