Zlatan: The Lion who conquered Old Trafford

This past week brought news that had been quietly expected for a while. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Manchester United’s mercurial, larger-than-life Swede superstar striker had been released from his contract, about three months early, to join the Major League Soccer side LA Galaxy. Zlatan then announced the move in his typical, bombastic style, taking out a full page advertisement in the LA Times with the words “Los Angeles, you’re welcome”. His departure from Manchester was met with a feeling of appreciation and gratitude from fans and players alike, with a number of the current United squad wishing him well on social media. But how is it that a 35-year old player, with his best years behind him, managed to win over the hearts of one of the world’s biggest football clubs in just one season?

The answer, of course, is that Zlatan and United were made for each other. Zlatan’s larger-than-life persona, his unabashed arrogance, and his fierce will to win were the perfect ingredients for a Manchester United footballer. In truth, this move probably came about a decade too late; a Zlatan in the prime of his career would have been a marketing goldmine for United, not to mention the obvious sporting attributes he would have brought as well. Nevertheless, even though Zlatan’s brief stint in the north-west of England did not quite live up to expectations, it was a crucial one. First, the numbers: Ibrahimovic scored 29 goals in his two seasons at the club, with 28 of them coming during his debut season. He notched two goals in the comeback win over Southampton in the Carabao Cup final, as well as goals against Liverpool and Manchester City in the league. Zlatan had gotten off to a blistering start at the club, scoring on debut in the Community Shield against Leicester, and then bagging three goals in his first two league games. While the goals did begin to dry up halfway through the season, Zlatan was an important part of the United lineup, in the absence of any other frontline recognized striker. His season was abruptly ended by his cruciate ligament injury in the Europa League quarter-final against Anderlecht, robbing him of the chance to cap a memorable debut season at the Friends Arena in Stockholm, the venue for the Europa League final, and also the stadium which is soon to play host to a statue of the Swede. However, Zlatan took this in his stride, enthusiastically participating in the celebrations, on crutches no less, after United won the final against Ajax, incidentally another of Zlatan’s former clubs. His second season did not go according to plan, as even though he made a near-superhuman recovery within seven months, and even scored a goal against Bristol City in the Carabao Cup, a series of setbacks in this recovery meant that he made only seven appearances for the club, which led to this early parting of ways.

Zlatan’s impact was not just on the pitch; while he did score some crucial goals in his debut season, it was the relationship he struck up with the United squad, allied with the winning mentality he brought to a squad severely lacking in trophy winners, that would stand out. Marcus Rashford alluded to this, posting that Zlatan had helped him “become a better player for years to come” on his social media, while the camaraderie he had with the likes of Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Eric Bailly was evident throughout last season. Jose Mourinho’s intention when bringing the Swede to United was for him to act as a mentor to the squad, as well as transfer some of his mentality and knowledge to them, and it seems that this was successful. As for the fans, the United faithful have always loved a maverick; someone with the ego a size of a small planet, as their adoration towards Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo has demonstrated. Zlatan was perfect in that respect; a global superstar with no doubts about his own ability, but crucially, one who also backed that up with performances on the pitch. Zlatan may not have set the world alight during his time in Manchester, but the self-proclaimed lion certainly did stake his claim over Old Trafford.