Looking at Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s latest tweet will tell you more about him as a player than almost anything else.
Behind all the bravado, the quotes and the confrontations, he’s all about one thing – trophies. Number 31 in Zlatan’s trophy haul was the FA Community Shield back in August, won on a warm afternoon at Wembley, only two months after the Swede used the same Twitter platform to confirm his move to Manchester.
Ibra’s 30 previous trophies had been won over a glittering 17 year career that has seen him take to the pitches of most of Europe’s major leagues. He’s won top flight titles in Holland, Italy, Spain and France and has a roll-call of clubs on his CV that are amongst the most prestigious in world football. Spells at Ajax, Juventus, Internazionale, Barcelona, Milan and Paris St Germain have seen him dominate the game wherever he went and amass a medal collection that would be the envy of any player. Amongst all those great clubs, however, Zlatan himself says it was his time in Amsterdam that shaped him most. In an interview reflecting on his time with Juventus and his reasons for leaving in 2006, he explained it wasn’t the Bianconeri that had the most impact on his footballing development. “In Turin I felt like a superstar, but the club that taught me the most was Ajax. They taught me more things than any other club,” he told Sfide in 2011, “In Italy, England and Spain they look for players who are already ready. They want results quickly. At Ajax it’s different. They shape you with training and discipline.”
It was at Dutch giants Ajax where Ibrahimovic says he learned most about the game of football
If Ajax was where Zlatan felt he learned the most, then it should also be stated he applied that learning very effectively throughout the rest of his career. The tactical discipline acquired at De Toekomst, combined with his undeniable skill and flair, provided the foundation for his considerable success in the following years.
Why then, at age 34, did he feel the need to join Manchester United? They are a club where expectations remain consistently high. Moreover, they are a club who have been in the dreaded ‘transitional phase’ that is so often used as a euphemism for a team who is performing well below usually exceptional standards. Surely Zlatan had nothing left to prove? And even if he did, was Old Trafford the place to do it?
Those were questions being asked throughout the footballing world in the aftermath of Ibrahimovic’s announcement in June of 2016 that he would be heading to the northwest of England. Questions that Zlatan, as usual, has had no problem addressing in his own unique manner. “Let’s say a person in my position would take the easiest way, go abroad, make money in China,” he said, speaking to Sky Sports in January 2017, “or the other side and settle down with the career he had, I choose not, I took the challenge, accepted the challenge, and that’s what I chose. That’s why I chose United also, in a situation where they struggled for the last four or five years, and if I can finish the task to bring them to the top, I will be more than happy.” In the same interview, conducted with Arsenal and France legend Thierry Henry, he chose to directly address those who said he might be too old to make a success of things in Manchester. “After many years of talks like ‘he can never make it in the Premier League, he can never make it there’, I had my little adventure going around different countries, and when they felt it was most difficult for me, I chose to come.”
Ibrahimovic joined United to prove he could still cut it in the Premier League
If most thought it would be a difficult transition for the Malmo native, he certainly isn’t making it look that way. His impact was immediate, his first goal being a late winner on his debut in that Community Shield match against surprise English champions Leicester City. Far from being a bit part player, he has featured in 37 matches so far this season, bagging a remarkable 24 goals. What’s more impressive, perhaps, is that those goals have been spread across all domestic and European competitions in which United are featuring this season, including a brilliant hat-trick against St Etienne in their recent Europa League Round of 32 tie. So dominant has the Swede been in the goalscoring charts, he leaves second placed Juan Mata trailing in his wake. The Spaniard has managed only nine goals in all competitions this season, while the much-talked-about Wayne Rooney has managed only five.
But it isn’t only in front of goal where Zlatan has had a massive impact. He appears to have brought star power back to the red side of Manchester, re-instilling the swagger that they had lost in their shambolic spells under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal. It’s an something that former teammate Hernan Crespo predicted would happen, too. Crespo, who worked with Ibra and current United manager Jose Mourinho at Inter, predicted their combined efforts would bring glory back to Old Trafford. Speaking to The Guardian in August 2016, he said, “The Manchester United fans can really look forward to having two world-class people at the team, one on the bench and one on the pitch. The two of them can turn Manchester United into winners again.”
Former teammate Hernan Crespo is sure Zlatan can bring success back to Man Utd
Mourinho, too, has heaped plaudits the eleven-time Swedish player of the year during their time together at the club. Hailing his continued professionalism, fitness and ability to influence the younger members of the squad, Mourinho was not short of praise when speaking in a press conference ahead of his team’s clash with Fenerbache in the Europa League earlier in the season. “I’m really happy. He’s giving us exactly what we need from him,” said Mourinho, “It’s quite beautiful for me to meet him five or six years later [after they worked together at Inter Milan] and to find the same ambition, passion and desire to play, desire to compete. I couldn’t be happier. The guy is really fit. He’s always ready to play. I couldn’t be happier in terms of his influence in the dressing room. Obviously he’s somebody that the young guys look at and what they see is great for them.”
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s impact at Old Trafford is undeniable. He has a chance to add yet more silverware to his considerable haul when Manchester United meet Southampton in the EFL Cup Final this coming Sunday. Though they face a tough task from Southampton side who have continued to grow under Claude Puel, Zlatan and co will no doubt be confident of securing victory. Crespo’s words may yet prove foretelling and Zlatan’s could be informing his 4 million Twitter followers that he has title number 32 in the bag as soon as this weekend. But even if he doesn’t, he has done what he came to England to do. He has proved the doubters wrong in the most emphatic of fashion. He has confirmed his status as one of the world’s greatest players and, if there was anyone on British shores lacking respect for Ibrahimovic’s extensive achievements and talent, he’s already ensured he’ll leave Manchester in much the same manner as he left Paris – like a legend.