We sat down with the great Andi Thomas and discussed Zlatan’s time with Manchester United and what our expectations should be.
1. What was your initial reaction when Manchester United signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic and what were yours and United’s fans expectations?
It was pretty exciting - he is, after all, quite an entertaining person, and a pretty decent tonic after a Louis van Gaal’s war on joy. Expectations were pretty realistic, I think - nobody expected a player in their absolute prime, but everybody hoped for somebody that could do lots of useful things, and a few spectacular ones. And that, more or less, is what United got.
2. After an unimpressive showing in the Northwest of England -- albeit marred by injuries -- what are your thoughts on him now? Did he not get enough time to really show what he’s capable of? Was the move/money worth it in the end?
I think “unimpressive” is a little harsh. He was United’s top scorer in 2016/17 with 28, and would surely have broken 30 had he not been injured. He was important to the trophies, too: scored twice in the League Cup final, including the winner, and was pretty handy in the Europa league until his leg exploded. What was unimpressive, perhaps, was the fact that United ended up being so reliant on his goals. Not just because he was obviously on the downward slope towards retirement, but also because it made United’s football predictable at times. When all you’ve got is a really big man up top, everything starts to look like a long ball. That’s not on him, of course.
So, it was worth it in terms of results. He’s received praise for his professional attitude and commitment to winning - more on that later - but in practical terms he acted as a kind of bridge. Effectively, he enabled Mourinho to end his first season with a couple of trophies and (perhaps more importantly, in terms of his job security) a return to the Champions League. That, in turn, has earned Mourinho a new contract, and the apparent backing of the board to do whatever he wants. How that turns out is an open, interesting, and not entirely un-troubling question ... but either way, Ibrahimovic did his job. As for the money, well, United have a lot of it, and could certainly have spent it a lot worse.
This season’s been a write-off, admittedly.
3. What do you think Galaxy fans should expect from Ibrahimovic? Is this a man past his prime? Or do you think he’ll still be able to wreck MLS with one hand tied behind his back?
In footballing terms, he is (or was, pre-injury) still very useful, but also very limited. He is definitely and obviously 36 years old, and as such he has virtually no pace, making him easy to defend in some ways. He won’t be running in behind any defences. But his touch is exceptional, he is a powerful presence in the air with both head and feet, and he still has that striker’s knack of finding space in the box. He’s also, more generally, a very decent and imaginative footballer when it comes to linking play. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the quality of MLS defending, but he did alright in the Premier League.
The injury is a big question, though. Also it’s certainly possible that this most recent injury has been one too far. The line out of United for the last few months is that he’s not been injured, but also not been fit, and that’s never a good look.
The other thing you should expect is a lot - a lot - of I AM ZLATAN, THE LION, THE DELIVERER, HE WHO COMES WITH THE GOALS. COWER IN MY PRESENCE, PUNY MORTALS, AND YOU SHALL BE BLESSED. It’s easy to dismiss this stuff as hyperbolic self-inflationary nonsense, as well as to note, a touch cynically, that as he’s got slower he’s got louder. But it’s important to remember that this stuff, while perhaps tedious, is not frivolous. Ibrahimovic takes himself, and his trade, very seriously: he considers himself an incredible footballer, he works as hard as he can to that end, and he demands similar from his colleagues. He’s a lion, after all. He has no choice.
(The fact that actual lions tend to spend most of their time lazing around in the sun while the lionesses do the hunting is neither here nor there. Ibrahimovic’s lion is the lion of the shared cultural imaginary; the regal and lethal beast that prowls through the human subconscious, their roar echoing in legend, in myth, and in perfume adverts.)
Perhaps this all connects back to his chances of recovering from this injury. Everybody’s body betrays them in the end, but you can be assured that Ibrahimovic will have done everything possible to get himself back to usefulness. When he says “LIONS DON’T QUIT”, or whatever, then he’s being silly. Maybe even boring. But he’s also reporting how he views himself and his profession. Whatever shape he’s in, and whatever the Galaxy want from him, he’ll give it his best shot.