With eight clubs on his extremely impressive CV, and an average of just over two years at each of them, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has always lived by one simple motto: ‘I’m here for a good time, not a long time.’ The Swedish striker has a winning mentality that defines him; he is bullish in the face of adversity and appears arrogant in the pursuit of the one thing he desires above all else: success.
It is understandable how his perception can be misconstrued to the public, but the resulting impression of him is ultimately unfair. Now 36, Ibrahimovic has been playing football professionally for 18 years; some of his words off the pitch and actions on it have painted him as a pantomime villain, but in reality, he just wants to win at all costs. Eleven league titles with some of the biggest clubs in Italy, Spain and France prove he has done that and, after so long at the highest level in Europe, he could have been forgiven for wanting to wind down his career in the shadows after leaving Paris Saint-Germain in 2016.
Mourinho and Ibra are peas in a pod
But that is not Ibrahimovic’s way, and he decided to take on arguably his biggest challenge yet in his twilight years, reuniting with Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. His bond with the Portuguese coach, whom he worked with for only a year at Inter in 2008/09, is tight and it is easy to say why. The Red Devils boss is seen to share certain characteristics with his friend and striker; though he didn’t have to deal with the same criticism from the English media.
Not only did the state of the side both Mourinho and Ibrahimovic were joining make it a real test of their winning credentials, with no Champions League football and a real gulf to the top of the Premier League at Old Trafford, but for the latter there was a need to silence critics. He may have told himself he didn’t care, but the constant jibes put to him by many people in England that couldn’t perform against their teams will have kept the fire burning within him.
Everyone knew what Mourinho could do, but the way he left Chelsea, sacked the previous December with the Blues just one point above the relegation zone, meant he had to prove a point. Two major trophies, the League Cup and the Europa League, did just that for the manager, while 28 goals in all competitions was a remarkable return for a supposedly ‘past it’ striker who couldn’t perform against English teams in his prime. The next stage for both was to add a 12th league title to Ibrahimovic’s collection and a 21st to Manchester United’s haul, but that dream was all but shattered in April.
A cruciate knee ligament injury suffered in the European quarter final against Anderlecht appeared to signal the end for Ibrahimovic’s English adventure and, probably, his career. He signed an initial one-year contract at Old Trafford, but the option of a second year wasn’t taken after the damage was confirmed. Throughout his life, though, Ibrahimovic has made it clear he is determined to give all he can in everything he does, and after a doctors, amazed by his condition despite the circumstances, gave him a sooner-than-expected return date, talk began to surface that he would indeed be staying in Manchester for another year.
The deal was done in August, still a few months ahead of his return to full fitness. Ibrahimovic had put everything into his rehabilitation and eventually stepped back onto the pitch in November. Things were different, though; there had been murmurings that he would not accept his new role within Mourinho’s set up. Romelu Lukaku had joined the club in the summer, taking his main striker berth along with his number nine shirt. Mourinho has never favoured playing two strikers together, let alone two as similar as them, so Ibrahimovic has found himself on the fringes and it didn’t take long for more speculation to appear.
The tide has turned at Old Trafford
That relationship between manager and player has never weakened, but perhaps Mourinho’s faith in Ibrahimovic’s ability has. This season, he has looked a lot more human, and a lot more like a player unable to match the quality of the Premier League. Another injury kept him out for weeks in December, and when Mourinho pointed out that he was “a 36-year-old with a big problem”, the writing was on the wall. LA Galaxy, the team many expected him to join after leaving PSG, seem close to securing a deal to take him to Major League Soccer.
Once his injury was confirmed towards the end of last season, it became clear that Ibrahimovic’s part in reinstating Manchester United as a global superpower was over. His desire, his heart and his record, not to mention the personal relationship, persuaded Mourinho to give him another chance; but that kind of injury can severely impact any player, let alone someone at the age of 36, no matter how strong he appears.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic may not win the Premier League title, but if he is to leave Manchester United now, it cannot be said he has anything left to prove. His career has been remarkable, and though it may look like a mistake from his friend Jose Mourinho to keep him, his own belief and desire convinced everyone he was worth it. As it has throughout his whole career, it acted as the perfect ad campaign.