It has been well established ever since Manchester United’s victorious night in Stockholm that Jose Mourinho had already drawn his wish-list for the season ahead in order to be able to compete in multiple tournaments including the Champions League, which the Red Devils will be a part of, in 2017/18.
The requirements were simple. Mourinho had asked for four players before the start of the new season—to further boost his spine with a nice blend of quality and experience, not too dissimilar to his efforts in the first transfer window. And Ed Woodward duly responded.
By completing the signing of center-half Victor Lindelof from Benfica and a more familiar Romelu Lukaku before the start of the preseason tour, and also impressively capturing two-time Premier League winning midfielder Nemanja Matic from title rivals Chelsea for a fee in the region of £40 million, far from unreasonable in today’s market, United showed the necessary impetus and addressed some long-standing and glaringly obvious issues in the squad.
But the fourth signing had to wait.
The season had begun and Mourinho’s side was off to a rampant start, winning the first two games, scoring eight goals and conceding none—with all the attacking players chipping in with goals—even defender Eric Bailly who netted his first in Welsh outfit Swansea.
And in the meantime, Manchester United managed to sign a fourth player—or re-sign, in this rather unique case—as Zlatan Ibrahimovic was added to the squad after the 36-year old signed a new one-year contract to take over the iconic number 10 shirt from former captain Wayne Rooney.
What could Zlatan add to the squad?
Ibrahimovic scored an overwhelming majority of United’s goals last season—almost to the point where it cost his over-reliant side on a fair few occasions, as the rest collectively failed whenever the Swedish center-forward was not at his best, in front of goal.
The 36-year old netted 28 for the season—and it’s safe to assume that he would have comfortably crossed the impressive 30-goal mark for the campaign at the ripe old age of 35 in his debut season in England, had his cruciate ligament injury in April not prematurely ended his first campaign at the club. Yet, Ibrahimovic had already exceeded expectations by then, under Mourinho at Old Trafford, as he has been doing quietly for the last five years in his trophy-laden career.
However, it was not just his goals that made a difference at United. Of course, they did on the pitch—as he won several games for them single-handedly in 2016/17—and dragged United over the line, when they looked up to him.
But off the pitch and in the dressing room, it is not hard to imagine why the former Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, and PSG player was a hugely positive influence. The young players took to him almost instantly as Ibrahimovic played a vital role in restoring the culture of winning at United, with the mentality and self-discipline required to sustain at the highest level.
Besides the experience in big games and leadership, arguably the most valuable aspect that Zlatan Ibrahimovic would bring to the already productive Manchester United attack is a healthy dose of variety. And one cannot have enough of it in the Premier League where every new challenge is different to the one before it. United now boast three number 9’s on paper—all with very distinct playing styles.
Individually, Mourinho now has in his ranks three forwards who could win games on their own, having done it several times in the past. Together, the likelihood of Manchester United converting frustrating draws to important wins—which had been their one stumbling block in his first season—is expected to see exponential growth. Growth that could ultimately prove to be the difference between United and rest of the top six.
Romelu Lukaku, the goal machine who needs as little as 3 shots per goal, and Marcus Rashford, the chief tormentor on the left with potential that knows no bounds, already seemed enough to take United to new heights.
Now, Ibrahimovic could join in on the party and contribute to the side with his ability to lead the line and leverage the wealth of pace around him to his advantage and give Mourinho the edge in tight games heading towards the last ten minutes. This is an invaluable trait in any side, let alone one looking to mount a serious challenge to win every competition it plays in.
It remains to be seen whether Zlatan Ibrahimovic actually finishes what he started, but Manchester United are much stronger with him prowling around and that’s all that matters for now.