Lots of football fans regularly watch a variety of different football leagues every weekend. I’m not one of those fans. I watch every United game. I attend every home game, in every competition, and as many away games as I can get tickets for. I watch Match of Day when United win, but otherwise, I don’t even watch other Premier League sides. When it comes to foreign football, I’ll watch a bit of La Liga, and that’s about it.
That’s why, when United are linked to players from European leagues, I can’t pass much judgement. United’s absence from the Champions League means I’ve seen even less of the players we are linked to. I’ll make an effort to watch YouTube highlights of those we sign and talk about them with people who know better than me, but it’s only when they pull on a United shirt that I can make a half decent assessment of them.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a player I’d seen a bit of over the years and I’d never been overly impressed. That goal against England was incredible and his scoring record was good, but he’d never done it in the Premier League. My opinion largely originated from his performances against us in 2009 when playing for Inter Milan. He looked bang average. Three months before those games, Jose Mourinho, manager of Inter, claimed that Ibra was better than our very own Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Ronaldo is a good player but he is certainly not the best,” he said. “He deserved the Golden Ball award because his team won the Champions League and the Premier League. But, for me, Ibrahimovic is the best.”
In the game at Old Trafford, Zlatan hit the bar from a free header and pulled a shot wide of the far post after getting behind United’s defence.
In that same game, Ronaldo won the corner from which our opening goal was scored, before putting United 2-0 ahead. I distinctly remember wondering what all the fuss was about where the Swede was concerned. He certainly wasn’t a superior player to our Ronaldo.
I heard all the quotes attributed to Ibrahimovic, where he claimed he didn’t need to buy his bird a present because she already had Zlatan, and when he told a reporter that he was speaking to God, and I thought he was a bit of a dick. That’s usually how football works. One fan’s wanker is another fan’s hero.
When he signed for United, I was excited. His relationship with Jose Mourinho, our new manager who we believed was set to win us the league, was obviously a huge bonus. It’s funny to reflect now on the numerous people, pundits and rival fans alike, who claimed that Ibrahimovic would struggle in the Premier League.
In 2014, when reflecting on Arsene Wenger’s decision to offer him a trial at Arsenal when he was 16, instead of a contract, Ibrahimovic said: “If I had played in England I would have destroyed it, like I have everywhere else.”
The Swede’s opportunity to destroy the Premier League was sadly denied towards the end of the 2016-17 season. While still in the running for the Golden Boot, having scored two goals in United’s 3-2 win in the EFL Cup final, Ibrahimovic picked up a double cruciate knee injury when landing awkwardly in the dying moments of the Europa League semi-final at Old Trafford.
It was so frustrating. It had been set up perfectly for Ibrahimovic to return to Sweden, play at the home of his national team, and win United another trophy. His injury meant he may never play to a high standard ever again, let alone make the final in May.
Yet the way he behaved that evening in the Friendship Arena made me love him all the more. He charged on to the pitch with his crutches, larking around with his teammates, posing in front of a banner that said he could shag the fan’s wife if he stayed, and making silly faces as he lifted the large trophy with one hand. What a bloke.
It made me think of Paul Scholes and Roy Keane in 1999 at the Nou Camp. Of course, the Champions League is a much more important competition, so the fact they missed our victorious final through suspension must have been gutting. But they looked like they would rather be anywhere but there when coming on to the turf after the game.
By contrast, Ibrahimovic was in his element. United had won a trophy, he missed out on playing because of injury, but he had played his part in getting us there. That’s not me slating the two aforementioned legends, but rather praising the Swede for his nature.
United have made the decision not to renew his contract though, which is a move I’d struggle to disagree with. As much as I like Ibrahimovic, and love him for being the new and improved Henrik Larsson style signing, part of me is a bit resentful that he didn’t agree to sign a contract with us earlier. It worked out for the best for us, given we would be playing an unavailable player a top salary had he put pen to paper. But he’s had a contract waiting for him for months but he was waiting out for a better option.
Even that hesitation I understand. He wanted to know whether we would be playing Champions League football and, at 35-years-old, he’s entitled to do that. But when people suggest that United shouldn’t have released him following his injury, that we owed him more as a thanks for all the goals he scored, it annoys me. He could be earning top whack now but he was undecided as to whether he was going to take the risk to stay at Old Trafford or not. Zlatan won’t go hungry, obviously, but he’s missed out on the security of a weekly salary.
The claims that he carried United last season also annoy me. He was our highest scorer but then he also played 90 minutes every week. He missed the last three league games of the season, yet only three outfield players had more playing time than him this season. When you’re a striker and play every minute of every game, you’re going to be the highest scorer. When it comes to “big chances missed“, Ibrahimovic had considerably more than any player in the league. His 18 missed big opportunities is five more than Aguero, six more than Costa, seven more than Kane and 10 more than Lukaku.
All that said, I’ve loved having him at United. I’ve loved all the cocky things he says that pisses other people off. I loved watching him score goals against City and Liverpool. I loved celebrating his goals that saw us win the EFL Cup and Community Shield. I loved seeing how much he loved Mourinho.
A few months ago, Eric Cantona reminded Zlatan that there was only one king of Manchester. Ibrahimovic responded, comically, by claiming that the Frenchman could keep as the title, as he was going to remembered as the God of Manchester. It didn’t quite work out that way but it could have done. United should be challenging for the title next season and Ibrahimovic could have played an important role.
But we will remember his season at United fondly and I think it’s completely the right thing to do to allow him to train at Carrington. Who knows, maybe he will make a strong come back and we can sign him again, although we shouldn’t hold our breath on that one.
While 2016-17 was a frustrating campaign in so many ways, I’m sure I will remember it as one of my favourites, for a whole host of reasons, and Ibrahimovic certainly played a huge part in that.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he is a Mancunian hero.