Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who turned 35 on Monday, is the second-oldest player on Manchester United after Michael Carrick and is in his 17th season as a professional footballer.
The Swede didn’t score in the disappointing 1-1 draw with Stoke City on Sunday, though he should have done after two minutes when one-on-one with goalkeeper Lee Grant and Ibrahimovic had other chances later in the game.
Not winning at home against the Premier League’s bottom side isn’t becoming for a side chasing the title, but United played well and created far more opportunities than was the norm under Louis van Gaal. That keeps the fans onside and confident the team will improve, although Van Gaal is not pleased at Jose Mourinho inferring that he’s still sorting out problems left by him.
That’s what new managers do when they take over a new club, though; they change tactics and try to get the team playing to their preferred way. Unlike at Barcelona, United have no set tactical template and the players are changing their game after two years of being told to play it a different way.
Ibrahimovic didn’t want to play for Van Gaal. United tried to sign him in the summer of 2015, but while he liked the idea of joining the club from Paris Saint-Germain, he didn’t want to play under the former Ajax boss, in whose system strikers receive limited service. So he declined the approach.
The centre-forward was happy to join United once the Dutchman departed and he’s made a positive start, scoring six goals in 11 games, though Sunday was the third consecutive league match in which he failed to find the net.
It’s not a goal drought but is a notable stat, given Ibrahimovic finished last season by scoring in his final eight games in all competitions. He scored 13 in that time and his season total of 50 goals for PSG were one reason why goal-starved United fans were so excited by his arrival.
Merchandise bearing his name is easily the best seller in the club’s shop and on the swag stalls outside the stadium, where you can buy a half-and-half scarf in the colours of United and Sweden. Paul Pogba is second-most popular, while sales of shirts featuring Wayne Rooney’s name have fallen away.
United fans are keen for a new hero and Ibrahimovic could become that. He is enjoying life in England’s northwest, where the fans have taken to him and sing his name. As United chased a goal against Stoke, the Stretford End hollered about Zlatan being a Swedish hero, who came on a free from PSG.
He has played for Ajax, Inter, Barcelona, Milan and PSG but the striker is blown away by the size of United’s support and considers the club bigger than any he has played at.
“I feel the atmosphere is amazing and the stadium is fantastic,” he said after scoring the winner vs. Zorya Luhansk on Thursday. “The team is working very hard and the competition here is more physical [than Spain, France or Italy]. You can see the game is not over after 45 minutes.”
Like several players under Mourinho, Ibrahimovic has his frustrations. He doesn’t think United are fully playing to his strengths and the service he’s received could be better. That has become clearer in recent matches and his frustration was publicly displayed against Zorya, when he urged Rooney to close down an opposing midfielder.
A United playing to full potential will do better than their current league position of sixth. After three straight league wins at the start of the season, United have taken only four points from the past 12 available. By comparison, under Van Gaal they were second a year ago and fourth at this point in 2014.
The initial surge of optimism has been tempered by a realism that the team is not going to be running away with the title and that Mourinho has a big job on his hands. The manager still wants to sign central defender and the interest in Southampton’s Jose Fonte was — and remains — genuine.
The Portuguese was desperate to move to Old Trafford, but he understood from the start of negotiations during the last transfer window that United needed to sell a defender. That’s not easy when players are on huge contracts. United received only £7 million from 10 close-season departures and paid £157.25 million for their seven arrivals. A new signing is unlikely in January.
It’s still early, yet the club’s next two league games are away trips to a resurgent Liverpool and then a Chelsea team with the same record as United: Four wins, a draw and two defeats from seven games. United’s recent record at Stamford Bridge is dreadful, something Mourinho has been partly responsible for.
The optimists hope that Mourinho is learning. He started a strong side against Stoke, unchanged from the one which had blown away champions Leicester the previous week. It wasn’t the fault of the manager that his players didn’t take the chances they created, nor that David De Gea made a rare error that led to Stoke’s goal.
But United need to improve quickly or get lucky for there’s also a game against Manchester City in the EFL Cup later this month. Mourinho needs to show that the team is making progress against better foes.
Not starting Rooney and Marouane Fellaini remains popular among supporters but Ibrahimovic has no such worries about his place at present. He’s four years older than Rooney but has played every minute in the league so far and has featured in every game in all competitions.
Ibrahimovic is more than a goal scorer and, in the words of another forward, Diego Forlan: “He’s really clever how he drops off centre-backs. If they follow him, he leaves space to the second striker.” He did just that in the first half against Stoke, then played an exquisite back heel toward Jesse Lingard, who set up Pogba. The Frenchman shot wide; one of two clear chances he missed.
While the Swede isn’t as mobile as he was and will need younger, faster players around him like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, he still puts in the runs. After 28 minutes on Sunday he ran toward the corner flag, distracting defenders as he took a ball down the line from Eric Bailly. Shortly into the second half, Ibrahimovic chased a ball into his own half, which led to a foul on Ryan Shawcross and his second booking of the season.
Sunday wasn’t his best day, as demonstrated when he failed to curl in a 67th minute shot, but United’s No. 9 remained busy around the area where he’s most dangerous. Like his new team as a whole he didn’t get his breaks, but conviction remains that, with patience, success will be evident when judgments are made deeper into the season.