The retired Swedish international certainly wasn’t looking to retire from national football following his substantial knee injury in April. Instead, Ibrahimovic took to social media to reassure fans that he would be back for more; stating himself that, “lions don’t recover like humans”. On 30th June—when his contracted ended—United released Ibrahimovic which had us speculating where he might end his career. But, this speculation was not long-lasting.
On the 24th of August, it was announced that Ibrahimovic had signed a new one-year contract with Manchester United. It was also announced that he would be wearing the number 10 shirt in his second season with the team. Ibrahimovic simply stated, “I never left, I just upgraded my number.”
Once back at United, there were weeks of speculation about when Ibrahimovic would return. Pictures arose in the media showing the 36-year-old in training. The answer that United fans had been eagerly awaiting was finally disclosed in the 77th minute at Old Trafford last Saturday. Ibrahimovic was wonderfully welcomed back onto his stage at the Theatre of Dreams.
Ibrahimovic, a morale boost?
After their electric start to the season, Mourinho’s men seemed to slow their pace over the last few matches. Before their game against Newcastle at the weekend, Belgian striker, Romelu Lukaku, had gone 7 games for the Red Devils without a goal. Injury problems in the United defence have also given Mourinho—and fans—something to ponder. Stalled contract negotiations between the club and Marouane Fellaini—of whom Mourinho appears to be so fond—have only added to the air of worry. All of this comes at a busy period for United. The club is facing 13 fixtures over the next month and a half, including Arsenal away and Manchester City at home within the next 3 weeks.
Not only does Ibrahimovic provide United with options in attack for the forthcoming games, his confidence, influence and prowess are bound to give United the morale boost they need right now. Not only on the pitch, but off it too. His personality has the power to bring the team together, without losing focus in the process.
Where will the lion fit in the pride?
Whilst the lion was away United signed Romelu Lukaku—on July 10th — to fill the then-nameless number 9 shirt. Lukaku has appeared in all 12 Premier League games for Mourinho which raises the question, where will Ibrahimovic fit in?
Given Manchester United’s remaining schedule until the new year, it might be that Lukaku partakes in some of those fixtures from the substitute’s bench. However, this isn’t something that the Belgian is used to. It would be interesting to see how he performs when he comes off the bench (if this were to happen). It might be that Lukaku is forced to raise his game to compete with the experienced 36-year-old. Ibrahimovic is a tall addition to an already tall team which provides extra threat during set-pieces. Because of this, Ibrahimovic might now be relied upon for last-minute goals instead of Fellaini, who could be on his way out in any event.
Mourinho might instead decide to play both Lukaku and Ibrahimovic together. That has the potential to produce some beautiful football indeed. We caught a glimpse of this pairing when Zlatan made his return on Saturday. It looked as though Lukaku pushed out wider to the right, whilst Ibrahimovic adopted the number 10 role; similar to that of Wayne Rooney or Paul Scholes. Despite playing for just 16 minutes, the Swede looked comfortable in that role and played a delightful, Scholes-like pass out wide.
It wouldn’t be the first time that Manchester United had a dangerous duo up-front. Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, known as the greatest striking partnership in history, set the bar in that regard two decades ago now.