Goodbye Zlatan and thanks for the memories of last season. Your 2 goals in the League Cup final success, your brilliant volley vs City and that great equaliser against Liverpool. Any player helping a club win 2 trophies, scoring 28 goals and costing the club nothing, can never be bad business, but also was the start of problems that still exist today.
If you ignore the egotistical nonsense that surrounds the big Swede, it is difficult for anyone to deny that he hasn’t been one of the top strikers ever to have played the game. His goal record is up there with the best and the number of big clubs he has played for cannot be coincidental. When he let his contract run down at PSG he was not short of interested clubs, even at the age of 34. United emerged as his top choice location and his past relationships with Jose Mourinho as his biggest attraction. A player of his ability, stature and experience belongs at Old Trafford, unfortunately it was 4 or 5 years too late.
I likened his arrival in Manchester to that of Henrik Larsson when at the age 35 was brought to the club on loan, very much as a back up striker who could bring his experience to the side. Larsson made only 13 appearances, scoring 3 goals in the process and across a number of competitions. I expected Zlatan to play a similar role, being brought on in games as an alternative option, playing in the League Cup early rounds, playing 60 minutes against the lower teams and bringing his wealth if experiences to the exciting young talents already at the club. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Mourinho instead installed him as his number 1 striker resulting in Marcus Rashford being removed from his central striker role, he demanded the number 9 shirt from Anthony Martial, forcing one of the most talented youngsters to consider his role at the club and played as many minutes as possible regardless of some absolute shocking displays.
Looking closer, it should not have come as a surprise as Mourinho has always loved a big, strong target man to lead the line. Didier Drogba, Diego Milito and Karim Benzema all stand at 6ft plus and all featured heavily in Mourinho’s successful sides of the past. His preference for a 6ft 5, old, less mobile, more predictable striker over a young, quick, hungry, local lad striker with bags of potential has had a knock on effect to another frustrating season under his management.
Marcus Rashford did and still has a lot to learn and still fancies himself primarily as a central striker. But the arrival of Zlatan, along with Mourinho’s reluctance to coach young players, has derailed Rashford’s rise and maybe even destroyed it for good. For all of Louis Van Gaal’s negatives during his tenure, one of the few positives, however lucky, was the emergence of Rashford, with the Old Trafford crowd immediately falling in love with their new star striker. Rashford had the world at his feet and needed the new manager to come in, put an arm round him, give him further confidence and ensure he fulfilled his huge potential. By bringing Zlatan to the club, he had the perfect mentor for the young Englishman, as well as the other youngsters, to improve facets of his game that hadn’t yet convinced everyone, but instead he had to watch as Zlatan took his place, slowed the attacking play down and drag the side into a very dull to watch, predictable and one dimensional outfit.
The knock on effect is that the team is still all of those things, but now, instead of Zlatan, the United line is led by Romelu Lukaku who may not be at Old Trafford himself had Ibrahimovic not suffered knee ligament damage at the end of the season. Either way, Rashford is still looking on regualrly from the bench, receiving little to no chances as main striker and now battling for the left wing position with Martial and Alexis Sanchez. It is not Lukaku’s fault, in fact the Belgian has been an upgrade to Zlatan and produced a strong first season at Old Trafford. But from a side that had huge potential to be moulded into a quick, technically talented side, producing an exciting brand of football, instead is being made to play the complete opposite and stinking out the Theatre of Dreams on a regular basis.
I, like most, have loved seeing “the lion” walk out at Old Trafford, but just wish it was at his prime. He has very much been the right man at the wrong time and the players around him had to change the way they attacked and performed in order to get the best out of him. This is by no means all Mourinho or Zlatan’s fault, this started way before they stepped foot at Carrington, but for the first time in a while, a Manchester United manager was given young, exciting and creative tools to return this great club back to where they belong, but has refused to use them.