Manchester United news: Zlatan Ibrahimovic the man for Jose Mourinho's master plan to get United firing again
The Portuguese was always going to say ‘yes’ to United, deeming the Old Trafford position to be the only one capable of matching the lustre of that he left behind at Real Madrid when returning to Chelsea three years ago, but still, he wanted to know what he walking into.
Some players were quickly marked for the exit door due to Mourinho’s belief that they would not, or could not, perform to his expectations – Bastian Schweinsteiger being the most high-profile casualty – and when the 53-year-old began work on the training pitch in the first week of July, the nucleus of his squad had already been forged.
Eric Bailly had arrived from Villarreal to add potential, athleticism and steel at centre-half, Henrikh Mkhitarayan lured from Borussia Dortmund to bolster United’s creativity in the final third and, crucially, Zlatan Ibrahimovic had been recruited to bring attitude, star quality and goals to Mourinho’s team.
Goals, above all else, are the commodity that Mourinho regards United as having neglected to their cost under Louis van Gaal, hence the move for Ibrahimovic.
Van Gaal’s team crawled in in fifth position in the Premier League last season having scored just 49 goals in 38 games
It was United’s worst return in front of goal for more than a quarter of a century, with only Anthony Martial (17), Wayne Rooney (15) and Juan Mata (10) hitting double figures for the club in all competitions.
Aside from a 5-1 Europa League victory against FC Midtjylland and 4-0 Champions League play-off win against Club Brugge – two teams who would have capitulated against most Premier League outfits – United failed to put more than three goals past any domestic opponent last season, including FA Cup fifth round opponents Shrewsbury Town.
But for the late emergence of Marcus Rashford, whose eight goals in 18 appearances almost salvaged Champions League qualification, United’s desperate campaign would have been even worse than it eventually proved to be, saved only by the FA Cup Final victory over Crystal Palace which secured their Community Shield date against Leicester City on Sunday.
Ibrahimovic’s arrival is designed to banish United’s goalscoring problems, however.
At 34, the Swede is clearly entering the autumn of his spectacular career, but his goal return for Paris Saint-Germain during four seasons in Ligue 1 suggests that he remains a potent force.
Ibrahimovic scored 156 goals in 180 appearances during his time at the Parc des Princes and while the majority came in France’s much-maligned top flight, he still delivered 20 goals in 33 appearances in the Champions League for the Qatari-owned outfit.
He hit 38 goals in 31 Ligue 1 games last season, with 13 assists added to his contribution, so Ibrahimovic arrives at Old Trafford with his recent form suggesting his pedigree has not been diminished by his advancing years.
Neither Ibrahimovic nor Mourinho anticipate a similar return in the Premier League, but the former Ajax, Juventus, Barcelona and Inter Milan forward will be expected to provide a focal point for United’s attacking play and one which will ensure more goals throughout the team.
Standing just short of 6ft 5ins, Ibrahimovic offers United and Mourinho the same powerful presence of a young Didier Drogba during Mourinho’s time at Chelsea and the new United manager believes such a figure is crucial.
Last season, Van Gaal could not decide between Rooney and Martial through the middle, even deploying Marouane Fellaini in the role at times, before allowing the pace of Rashford to create havoc in the final weeks of the campaign.
But Mourinho demands certainty from his centre-forwards and Ibrahimovic’s experience and track record offers that and will enable Rooney to play just off the Swede, with Martial and Rashford buzzing around with their youthful energy and pace.
He has described Ibrahimovic as a ‘super striker’ and, against Leicester, we are likely to see Mourinho’s plan in competitive action for the first time, with United’s new number nine leading the line and bringing in those around him.
Whether he has the legs and hunger to make a success of his time in England, only time will tell, but Ibrahimovic has brought proven quality and presence back to an area where United had none last season.
With Rooney restored to an attacking role, following his experiment in midfield under Van Gaal and with England, and Ibrahimovic bringing his self-belief and stardust, Mourinho believes United will no longer fall short in the numbers game up front.