In the wake of a truly disastrous season, Manchester United find themselves heading into their tenth season of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era as far away from the dizzying heights he led them to as they have been since his departure.
The footballing royalty he transformed them into, that boasted 13 Premier League titles as well as consistent success in domestic and European competitions, once looked as though it would monopolise these competitions forever. Few could have foreseen the disintegration of this dominance and the winning culture that had been so deeply ingrained into the club by Ferguson and his squads; especially this quickly.
Much applause has been deservedly given to Cristiano Ronaldo following his sensational return to the club last summer, and his efforts in rescuing his floundering teammates on numerous occasions to guide them through a season that, while still catastrophic, would have achieved unprecedented levels of failure had it not been for him. All this at the age of 37, is often what is said about him. Even so, United find themselves in a trophy drought spanning five years, with little optimism that this could soon end.
United’s last two major trophies both came in the 2016/17 season, as Jose Mourinho- disillusioned by the club’s board- managed to mastermind triumphs in the League Cup and Europa League with a rather mediocre squad. While openly critical about certain players within the squad – some of whom are still at the club – one player Mourinho trusted greatly was Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The pair had struck up a close bond from their time at Inter Milan together, to the point where Ibrahimovic declared that he would be ‘willing to die’ for Mourinho.
Still, it seemed something of a gamble to bring a soon-to-be 35-year-old to the club, who hadn’t played a minute of football in England – which may have proved problematic given the immense difficulty some great players have had adapting to different leagues across Europe – but the gamble certainly paid off. Ibrahimovic has spoken frequently of his reasoning for joining United, with the recurring theme of wanting to silence doubters that would sneer at him for playing in leagues they dismiss as easier than the Premier League, and were desperate to see him fail due to his notoriously unapologetic confidence.
Remarkably, Ibrahimovic finished the 2016/17 season with an outstanding return of 38 goals and assists in 46 games in all competitions. He scored twice in the League Cup final, as well as the winning goal in the Community Shield. A knee injury unfortunately cut his time at the club short following this season, but the quickness with which the celebration of his excellent service to the club ended feels peculiar, considering all the plaudits Ronaldo has received for arguably not succeeding as much. Even more so when it is factored in that United haven’t won a trophy since Ibrahimovic’s tenure, and only won a single FA Cup in the three seasons before his arrival.
The way Manchester United has operated as a club since 2013 has angered many United fans, players and managers. Louis van Gaal has labelled them a ‘commercial club’, and Jose Mourinho’s extensive criticism of United’s board while he was manager has aged very well in light of the club’s further diminishing since he was sacked. Ibrahimovic is part of this group, revealing the club’s ’small, closed mentality’ in his autobiography.
Revelations of United’s lack of ambition in the last decade help make the feats of Ibrahimovic and Mourinho even more impressive given the circumstances, as they were two serial winners plunged into an environment of mediocrity and tasked with performing miracles to bring a steady stream of trophies to the club. While Mourinho was pragmatic in setting his team up to stay competitive in games, Ibrahimovic was the beacon of hope on the pitch who injected much-needed character and inspiration into the team to drag them to victory.
The story of a fantastic goalscorer who came to England at an age where many would be focusing on winding down their careers at a lower level is testament to the attitude of Ibrahimovic, and strongly resembles Ronaldo’s journey. While Ronaldo has been monumental at times in his second spell at United, such as in the Champions League group stage games, Ibrahimovic enjoyed some of his heroic moments on a bigger stage, most notably at Wembley Stadium. His sensational free kick and late towering header won United the League Cup against a Southampton side that had dominated most of the game, and were horrendously unlucky not to have won the final.
Sadly for Ibrahimovic, injury ruled him out of United’s Europa League campaign before the semi-finals. However, he still made his impact in the competition with goals in the group stage and a hat-trick against Saint-Etienne in the round of 32. While football is of course a team game, and it can be argued that Ibrahimovic was helped by players such as Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia – two veterans from the Ferguson era who had what it takes to win trophies – it seems as though he has never truly been acknowledged as the generational talent that he is, at least not in England.
Ibrahimovic has been a league winner in Italy, Spain, France and the Netherlands. He has proven his outrageous quality in England, considered by many as the hardest country to play in at the age of 35, and has just won the league in Italy for the fifth time at the age of 40; the 34th major honour of his career.
While much has been said about Ronaldo’s success at United so late in his career cementing his legacy as one of, if not the best of all time in some people’s opinions, Ibrahimovic’s arguably superior success at post-Ferguson Manchester United seems to have been forgotten.
Despite his illustrious career still not standing up to Ronaldo’s, and the difficulty there is in considering Ibrahimovic in the debate for the greatest ever player, comparing their recent spells at United helps to justify why Ibrahimovic should be widely considered as perhaps one of the best strikers of all time, and unquestionably one of the best players of the 21st century.