Zlatan Ibrahimović’s equalizer against Liverpool at Old Trafford is a breathtakingly good goal. His sense to take a couple of steps back into a tiny pocket of space thus giving Antonio Valencia a clear target for a cross demonstrated the instincts of a top-class and experienced striker. His header was placed, inch perfect high into the goal. Make no mistake it was not easy to execute. What shouldn’t get lost in the joy and relief of Ibrahimović’s leveler was his reaction to the goal.
There was no self-indulgent celebration here, just a few high-fives, a cry for Old Trafford to raise the roof, and a determination to restart the game in search of a winner. It was a pure display of the player’s winning mentality; no wonder Mourinho sought to recruit the Swede on taking the reins at Old Trafford.
"Zlatan’s equalizer against Liverpool is breathtakingly good. What shouldn’t get lost in the joy of the leveler was his reaction to the goal. There was no self-indulgent celebration, just a pure display of the player’s winning mentality."
The bare statistics do paint a contrasting picture, as United rank 16th in terms of shot conversion and 20th overall with respect to big chance conversion. Yet, Zlatan is joint top scorer in the league with 14 goals, albeit having taken 89 shots to reach that target. It’s more than any other player. To put that in context Alexis Sánchez has racked up the same number of goals, but taken just 72 shots, while the other leading scorer, Diego Costa, has taken just 58.
Ibrahimović’s was not solely recruited to lead the line though. He is also at Old Trafford to add a measure of leadership missing for some time. By sheer force of personality he’s emerged as the alpha male, supplementing both Wayne Rooney, and deputy captains Michael Carrick and Chris Smalling.
United’s dependence on Zlatan, both for inspiration and goals, is dangerous, especially with Juan Mata and Paul Pogba being the next top scorers for United in the league, a full 10 goals behind the Swede. But when United needs inspiration the man Mourinho’s players seek is the talismanic number nine.
United legend Nemanja Vidić singled out the Ibrahimović as being central to Mourinho’s side – and the Serb should know a thing or two about leadership.
“He is the one who has been driving Manchester United forward in recent weeks. Other players have to step up with the goals if they want to keep winning matches. He is playing really well this season,” said Vidic. “First of all, his motivation at 35 years of age is incredible. I think he’s keeping himself fit. He’s professional. And his scoring is a great record.”
If anything Vidić is understating the striker’s maniacal desire to stay at the top. The Swede may not have many years of football left, but his influence could linger around Old Trafford long after he hangs up his boots. A modern day Eric Cantona to inspire the youthful hopefuls.
It’s important not to underestimate the importance of Ibrahimović’s mindset – a winning mentality sorely missed during the Louis van Gaal and David Moyes era. Indeed, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial identified the impact the Swede has already made at Old Trafford.
“You can’t ask for more. Zlatan is very easy to speak to and he’s easy to get along with,” said Rashford. “The way he approaches every game is about winning. He wants to win, regardless of the opponent, whether we are home or away, whatever the odds – he always wants to find a way to win. That mentality is what you need to be at the top level. That is where he is and where he has been for years.”
Meanwhile, Martial’s mental strength has been questioned this season, but the Frenchman already looks up to the senior man. Many at Old Trafford hope that the mentor has a significant impact on his talented mentee.
“He is a top player and we can’t help but learn from just being alongside him, playing and training with him, seeing what he is doing now and what he has done in the past. In spite of his age, he has been a tremendous help to our side; he is doing loads for us. Let’s hope his form can continue because that is going to help us to climb the table.”
Zlatan has taken on the role of “godfather,” and was quick to defend Paul Pogba after the Frenchman’s poor performance against Liverpool. Criticism of Pogba was exacerbated by the launch of the player’s emoji across social media. Poor timing.
Much like Roy Keane became, in his peak, the embodiment of Sir Alex Ferguson on the pitch, so Ibrahimović’s is Mourinho’s ‘general’, the man tasked with dragging United back to the top of the tree. It takes a special sort of arrogance to make that happen, and in Mourinho and Zlatan the club has a duo who possess confidence in spades.
It may labour the point, but it is Zlatan’s attitude and work ethic, as well as his aura, that could be his biggest legacy at Old Trafford.
“I prefer to win the Premier League than any individual ones because seeing me winning something and not my team-mates is not the way I want it,” he said in a recent interview. “If I could be first in the Premier League and have five goals and the media attacking me, ‘he can’t do it in the Premier League’, I’d prefer to have it like that.”
Ibrahimović may prefer to have it that way, but he’s not one to let his high standards slip and, by default, challenges those around him to keep up. True, there have been games where Ibrahimović has been relatively anonymous. He even suffered a six-match scoreless run, but he still has that rare gift of making a telling difference when inspiration is required.
Cantona, United icon and self-appointed Commissioner of Football, gave his seal of approval to the Swede, dubbing Ibrahimović an heir, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek.
Behind the jest is a truth: that the Old Trafford throne finally has a worthy successor, one whose influence could linger long after he hangs up those golden boots.