Two months after Zlatan Ibrahimovic joined Manchester United, Jose Mourinho claimed that the striker would be at the club for longer than his one year contract. With an option to extend, and such a bright start of scoring five goals in five games, it looked as though the Swede was here for a while.
“I have no doubt that he will be here for two years,” Mourinho said last August.
The player and manager clearly have a fantastic relationship. Ibrahimovic hasn’t had a perfect season but he’s had a very good one. Even if you ignore that he signed for free, is 35-years-old, and has just made the step up to the toughest of the European leagues, he’s done well. But when you factor all of that it, it makes his transition to United all the more impressive. Scoring 28 goals in a debut season is a fantastic achievement. The fact that two of those came in the League Cup final in a 3-2 win makes it all fairly remarkable. Gary Neville has named him the Premier League signing of the season.
But even before his display at Wembley, Mourinho was confident that Ibrahimovic would be at the club beyond this season.
“The Zlatan situation is simple. He has a ‘one-plus-one’ year contract,” Mourinho said. “We are happy with him. We are going to execute the option of a second season. After that he can do what he wants to because he is free. It’s perfect for him to be here for 18 months more because he is happy, he is committed and loving his career at United.”
Ibrahimovic himself seemed keen to extend the deal too. He regularly spoke fondly of the club, the fans and his reunion with Mourinho.
“I have a contract which says one plus one,” he said. “I feel good, I feel fresh, in shape. If I feel like [I do] now it will be a second year. I want to be realistic with myself. If I’m here I want to be able to perform, do what I can do and not waste time.”
However, at the turn of the year, Ibrahimovic appeared less committed. After his vital contribution at Wembley against Southampton, he was hesitant about confirming he would be at United for the 2017-18 campaign.
“Let’s see what happens,” he said. “I mean the moment, how I feel, the situation, we have another two months of the season to go.”
Mourinho responded by claiming he wouldn’t beg the player to stay but joked that United supporters
“We all believe he will stay one more season,” the manager said. “He one time left me because he wanted to go to Barcelona. That made me sad. We don’t beg, but if needed, United fans may go to his house and sit there all night.”
However, with an offer on the table, Ibrahimovic has delayed, and possibly rightly so. At this stage in his career, he doesn’t have time to waste, so with United’s place in next season’s Champions League in question, it might make sense for him to hold off committing himself if a club in Europe’s elite competition wanted to offer him a contract for next season.
Still, on Thursday evening, following a poor performance against Anderlect, Ibrahimovic picked up a horrific injury. Ibrahimovic has ruptured both anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments with an expected recovery period of nine to 12 months.
If anyone can come back from an injury like that, it’s Ibrahimovic, but he could be six months short of his 37th birthday by then.
Roberto Baggio did it, coming back from a serious knee injury when he was approaching his 35th birthday, so it’s possible. Zlatan certainly has the mentality to do it. But will he be the same player? Is it worth the hours in the gym and pain to his body when he would only likely play for another season or two anyway, probably not even at a high level?
Still, you have to wonder whether Ibrahimovic is regretting his decision not to commit himself to United. In just over two months time, the Swede will no longer be earning £220,000-a-week from United. It’s hard to imagine the club will extend his deal when there are no guarantees that he will be able to return as a top goalscorer.
With him failing to commit to United before Champions League football was confirmed, it’s hard to argue that United should commit to him when he’s facing such a lengthy period on the sidelines. He was waiting to see if something better was on offer to him around the corner, as is his right, but now the same situation is presented to United. Why fork out a fortune for him when that salary could go to someone better, or at least, someone who is able to play?
The the club simply couldn’t justify paying close to £1 million a month in wages to a player who might not kick a ball again until 2018. He’s obviously not short of money and he won’t be going to food banks but there’s the possibility he will be without income for close to a year, other than the sponsorship deals he has or punditry jobs. He’ll likely get plenty of offers for that, given his charismatic personality, but it won’t come close to matching the salary he could be on had he signed a deal with United.
It’s likely that our club will gladly help him in his recovery, whether he’s under contract or not, but once the Swede has got over the devastation of the injury, and missing out on a potential Europa League final in Stockholm, he may have regrets over not accepting the contract United had put on the table.