You could have called it the crowning glory of a fine debut campaign at Manchester United, except there is still more to come. Zlatan Ibrahimovic so fittingly scored the late winner against Southampton to claim a trophy in the League Cup as well as his 26th goal in 38 games for United this season, and all by February. It is a hugely impressive haul, continuing the strike rate he had in a less demanding league with Paris Saint-Germain. It also reasserted just how much of a decisive match-winner he is, and a trophy winner. A big contribution to go with that big personality.
The big question, of course, is whether there is more to come with United after this season; whether he will sign on for another year.
Jose Mourinho stated that the belief at the club is that Ibrahimovic will, although he played on the star’s already heroic status amongst supporters by suggesting they camp outside his house to persuade him. It’s difficult not to wonder whether the 35-year-old is deliberately leaving the question open right now to only deepen that status by making himself more wanted, to create a bit more mystique about his image.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s incredible 15-year trophy streak
There can be no doubting the proper football substance behind that image, or that he is still the same player. When Mourinho was specifically asked whether he himself ever doubted whether Ibrahimovic was still physically able to be such an influential player at the Premier League at the age of 35, he gave an answer that did almost as much as the goals to banish such questions.
“I was his manager [at Internazionale]. I know the potential. Only a silly player comes to England with 35 years old, and with a successful career that Zlatan had, only a silly one comes here if he doesn’t feel that he can do it so who better to know? Him. Not me, not you, him. So when he decides, 35 years old, to take the challenge, to a country like England, to a club like Manchester United, when he takes that decision, he feels ready. The most important feeling is his.”
Ibrahimovic has made a lot of people eat their words – some rather close to here – forcing them down throats in the same way he forces in goals like that against Fraser Forster in the 87th minute of the League Cup final.
Part of the frustration with the Swede through that time was that, by selecting a Paris Saint-Germain so far ahead of the rest of the French league, so soon after spells with clubs in Italy that Calciopoli similarly left way ahead of the rest of the Italian league, it felt like he wasn’t really properly pushing that immense talent to its limits. That could be one reason, of course, he remains in such good shape now.
Even allowing for all that, though, it’s hard to do down his recent record in finals. Ibrahimovic has scored six in his last five, just as Mourinho has now won 11 of his career 13. If it weren’t for the fact that Ibrahimovic is so creatively expressive, you could almost call him the Portuguese’s representative and spiritual embodiment on a pitch, given the parallels between them from their shared history to the way they have been doubted before going to United.
That is exactly the role Ibrahimovic was signed for, of course, in much the same way that Didier Drogba was brought in for Mourinho’s second spell at Chelsea. Possibly learning from the effect on his squad when the Ivorian left Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2015, and the way he would effectively act as a go-between for younger players, Mourinho knew he needed a respected and loyal lieutenant to lead among the players. There are few better suited than Ibrahimovic, especially since he so buys into what Mourinho tries to do.
The United squad also fully but into the Swede, who is hugely popular, and for reasons more than his goals. Just like Mourinho again, Ibrahimovic often looks to get a reaction out of his teammates. He will do and say things to push their buttons but, the second they respond abrasively, he will start laughing.
That is something to keep in mind when he comes out with some of his more outlandish compliments about himself, as will be emphasised in a post-game interview to be released later today. Ibrahimovic just about gets away with saying highly self-regarding things that would sound utterly ludicrous if they came from almost anyone else.
That also points to one of football’s eternal truths. You can almost say anything, as long as you are doing the business and performing and winning on the pitch.
Ibrahimovic has been more than doing that. His scoring rate, in fact, is really what’s ludicrous. It’s so good, especially the way he has kept up a ratio of over 0.68 from his time in France. The drop-off from 0.86 from his time in France is obviously forgivable, given that United are not so far ahead of the rest of their league in the way PSG are.
Ibrahimovic currently looks so far ahead of so many players in the Premier League. He rose higher than anyone, in so many ways, in that League Cup final. And there is undoubtedly more to come.