The Sweden international has arrived with a huge reputation, but in truth his advancing years dictate that he must be used sparingly by new boss Jose Mourinho
Zlatan time is almost upon us.Four weeks on from the confirmation that one of the world’s most flamboyant footballing personalities had become a Manchester United player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic could make his debut against Galatasaray on Saturday. The venue of Gothenburg in his Swedish homeland is no coincidence. This game was made for him.
But after seeing Ibrahimovic in United colours for the first time, in familiar surroundings and backed by thousands of his own countrymen, attentions will immediately turn to the Premier League season ahead and people will question whether the striker can live up to his self-inflated billing.
Ibrahimovic has never been slow to talk up his own ability, but as he approaches the age of 35 he and United must account for a physical slowdown when judging just how big a part the Swede has to play in 2016-17.
While for many the difficulty of the Premier League is exaggerated, there can be little doubt that the faster, more frenetic and fiercely competitive nature of the English top-flight presents a very different type of challenge for any player experiencing the division for the first time. And for a 34-year-old, that only makes the transition from Ligue 1 life that much bigger a proposition to overcome.
Jose Mourinho has the luxury of a number of options. While for Louis van Gaal the numbers looked short in the forward line as United pursued Premier League and Champions League glory followed by Europa League and FA Cup success, the Portuguese is very clear that the league is his only priority.
As such, the opportunity to use the likes of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Wayne Rooney as a number nine without overly weakening the attacking midfield line behind the main striker is massively beneficial to Mourinho. The additions of Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan make all the difference to United in terms of extending their resources.
That depth increases the likelihood of Mourinho using Ibrahimovic sparingly. The majority of people drafting likely first-choice starting line-ups for United in the forthcoming season will have Zlatan fixed in as the regular central striker, but there are no guarantees that he will be able to reproduce the consistency he showed with Paris Saint-Germain any more than there is relating to his form.
In his last season at PSG he netted 50 goals in 51 games, but the heavier workload involved in Premier League football combined with the extra 12 months in his legs suggests that game-time will be harder to come by with United. The very fact Mourinho gave him an extended summer break speaks volumes about the realisation that Zlatan is not the Zlatan of years gone by.
“He was good enough for Ligue 1 but I really don’t think he can play 30 games next season, especially in England,” says Goal’s PSG correspondent Loic Tanzi. “Mourinho will have to manage him but it will not be easy as he wants to play every single game, even cup games.”
Other than in his injury-hit 2014-15 season, Ibrahimovic has made more than 40 appearances in every campaign since 2008. Yet that trend should be bucked by Mourinho this term if he is to get the best out of the Swede. As much as Zlatan himself might back himself to play as often as his mind allows, it is now his body which has to become the deciding force.
Many concerned fans immediately asked what Ibrahimovic’s arrival at Old Trafford means for the development of Rashford or for the future of Martial. But in truth they should not be affected that much, since it would take nothing short of a miracle for the former Inter, AC Milan and Barcelona star to turn out week after week for United this term.
While he is destined to make an impact, the likelihood of him being an ever-present is somewhere akin to the chances of him gaining an award for humility. If anything, his responsibility to Rashford, Martial et al relates more to what he can teach his young team-mates rather than what he can do to keep them out of the forward line. His infectious personality and endless self-belief could be magnificent legacies regardless of his output in terms of games and goal.s
On Saturday Ibrahimovic is likely to don a Manchester United jersey for the first time, and there will undoubtedly be thrills and spills to come as he wears the red shirt in the weeks and months to come. But anyone expecting him to play 40-plus games and score as many goals in his first Old Trafford season should reassess their expectations. He won’t quite be a pit-part player in United’s season, but he will almost certainly be asked to become more familiar with a rotation policy than he has ever been before.
He departed PSG claiming “I came like a king and left like a legend” and responded to Eric Cantona’s throwing down of the gauntlet by saying “I won’t be King of Manchester, I will be God of Manchester.”
Yet in all likelihood, it will not be games and goals tallies which decide whether Zlatan is a God or not when he leaves Manchester United. Instead, his legacy will be appraised in a very different way to that by which he has been judged so far.
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