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Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a huge star, but what will he add to Manchester United on the pitch? Adam Bate takes a look…
Paul Scholes has already praised his “character” and “charisma”, while former Manchester United coach Rene Meulensteen calls him “the perfect fit” because of his record as a serial “winner”. Peter Schmeichel claims the striker is “born to play for Manchester United”.
Clearly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has a reputation. And rightly so. His swagger has echoes of Eric Cantona and the Swede’s mere presence will inspire belief. After all, Ibrahimovic was lifting league titles with Ajax before Marcus Rashford had started school.
He is trusted by Jose Mourinho – a man he claims to speak to on the phone “every day” – and could be an important conduit in a dressing room curious about the new coach, rather than in his thrall. An experienced figure “willing to kill” for Mourinho might well prove vital.
But while much of the focus thus far has been on these intangibles, many of them also applied to Didier Drogba. Mourinho turned to the ageing forward in 2014 and the Chelsea legend went on to play his part in the club’s title win that season. A small part.
Manchester United will need Ibrahimovic to offer more, much more, than four goals and a dressing-room presence. They’d be anticipating a star striker who can lead the attack. So, just a few months shy of his 35th birthday, what can Ibrahimovic be expected to deliver?
Signs of decline are not obvious. Ibrahimovic has just produced the best goalscoring season of his career, netting 50 times in 51 appearances for Paris Saint-Germain – some 15 goals more than his next best effort. It’s the second best tally of any striker in a major European league.
While this was a stand-out season, his record is otherwise a model of consistency. Ibrahimovic has passed the 30-goal mark in all competitions in each of his last five seasons and scored more than 20 goals for nine seasons in a row at four different clubs.
Some will point to the perceived weakness of the French league and it’s true that Ibrahimovic has twice failed to find the net against PSG’s closest rivals, Monaco and Lyon, in the past 12 months. But his Champions League return has been impressive enough.
He was the club’s top scorer and chief assist provider in the competition, finding the net in three of his four matches against English opposition – including home and away against Chelsea in their last-16 tie. He has repeatedly proven his quality at a high level.
That repeatability is what makes him such an attractive proposition in the short term and is a key quality to look for in any new acquisition. Ibrahimovic has scored goals for seven different teams in five different countries. He is as close as it comes to a sure bet.
|Season||Club||Shots per 90 (in box)|
|2012/13||Paris St Germain||2.9|
|2013/14||Paris St Germain||3.1|
|2014/15||Paris St Germain||2.5|
|2015/16||Paris St Germain||3.1|
The player’s shot volume highlights the point. “If you are going to pick out any aspect of a striker’s performance that may be repeatable year-on-year, then shots per 90 should be the metric you use,” explains Ben Pugsley of the StatsBomb website.
“A striker is more likely to reproduce his shot volume year-on-year than any other countable aspect of his performance.” Ibrahimovic has proven his capability to get shots away, regardless of the club or the league in which he’s been playing.
Since his season with Barcelona in which he fired off 3.0 shots from inside the box per 90 minutes, there has been no indication of decline. In each of the last seven seasons, he’s averaged at least 2.5 penalty-box shots per 90 minutes with a high of 3.1 – in 2015/16.
United might well feel they are buying a guarantee of goals. For context, nobody at Old Trafford averaged more than 1.4 penalty-box shots per 90 minutes over the course of last season – with Rashford and Anthony Martial both registering this number.
However, the concern must be that this statistic does not necessarily reflect the quality of United’s forwards, but rather the inability of the team to fashion such openings. Louis van Gaal’s side ranked just above the bottom three in the Premier League for chances created.
As a result, opportunities might be at a premium for a player whose movement has been increasingly restricted as the years have passed. In his physical prime, Ibrahimovic was the complete forward but he has had to adapt to maintain his minutes on the field.
Ibrahimovic does continue to drop deep into the areas of a No 10 and provided 13 assists in Ligue 1 last season. That would have been the best in the league, had he not finished off eight of team-mate Angel Di Maria’s 18 assists himself.
But he has become more unwilling to drift to the flanks in search of the ball – 48 per cent of his Champions League touches in 2015/16 came in central areas. He is now reliant on the service of others and, as Robin van Persie discovered, that can be tricky at Old Trafford.
And yet, Ibrahimovic is more naturally suited to the target-man role that Mourinho surely envisages – providing the team’s offensive pivot. For while the new coach might be excited by the mobile young forwards at his disposal, he still favours a reference point in attack.
“I have no striker,” he complained before Diego Costa’s arrival at Chelsea in the summer of 2014. The player’s arrival from Atletico Madrid helped deliver the title, but it’s important to note that Costa didn’t deliver his own openings. They came from elsewhere.
Indeed, the statistics show that 16 of Costa’s 20 goals in Chelsea’s 2014/15 title-winning season came from clear-cut chances. He has still not scored a goal for Chelsea from outside the penalty area. This is the role that Mourinho will feel Ibrahimovic can still perform.
Of course, the key is to construct a team that can make use of such an expert finisher. However, it does help to have one. In this respect, the potential arrival of Ibrahimovic should not be seen as the final piece in the jigsaw. Instead, he might just be the first one.
The team’s transformation will depend on others. But in Ibrahimovic, Mourinho can virtually eliminate the possibility of failure on the grounds of lacking a top-class finisher, something Arsenal fans may well feel proved costly for their team during the title run-in.
Prising Ibrahimovic away from Paris was once described as “mission impossible” by Mourinho. Now he is about to achieve that without even paying a transfer fee. Given the player’s continued good form, it’s not an opportunity he’s likely to pass up.