Another week and another bundle of goals for Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Saint Etienne thought they’d seen the back of the former Paris Saint-Germain striker, who netted 14 times against them during four years in the French capital. No sooner had Les Verts drawn Manchester United in the Europa League, they likely anticipated their fate. Naturally, an Ibrahimovic hat-trick followed – his first in a red shirt.
For Sunday’s FA Cup meeting with Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park, Ibrahimovic was kept in reserve by Jose Mourinho, only to be sprung from the bench to slot home United’s winner in the dying embers of the game. It was his 24th strike of the season.
Ibrahimovic is fond of emphasising his similarity to fine wine – getting better with age – but many scoffed at the idea of the 35 year-old making such an impact in English football. This wasn’t helped by United’s social media team, who ramped up hype after he signed, claiming that Ibrahimovic had “broken #mufc power records in tests during his medical”.
That doesn’t seem such a fanciful idea now. Ibrahimovic may be the best example of a footballer improving as he gets older. By most metrics, the Swede is absolutely staggering. Before he reached the age of 30, Ibrahimovic scored 232 goals in 529 games for club and country. Post-30, he has 246 in 300. Before the derogatory remarks about the standard of Ligue 1 resurface, 35 of those were scored for Milan, 22 in the Champions League and 34 of them at international level, along with his tally for United.
Since the start of the 2015/16 season, Ibrahimovic has fired in more goals (74) than Cristiano Ronaldo (72) and only one less than Lionel Messi. He is the oldest player to hit the net 15 times in a single Premier League campaign and next weekend he will be attempting to win the 32nd trophy of his career at Wembley in the League Cup final.
“Wherever I went I won,” Ibrahimovic said on Thursday, “so I am like Indiana Jones.”
But, as Harrison Ford’s character discovers in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Ibrahimovic won’t be around forever and will require his very own Mutt Williams at some point.
Worryingly for United, their dependancy on Ibrahimovic is such that it’s potentially problematic. Although he has completed all but one of their 25 Premier League games, an Ibrahimovic injury or suspension could seriously derail United’s season.
No club in the top six relies upon an individual for goals as much as Mourinho’s side. Ibrahimovic accounts for almost a third (32%) of United’s goals in all competitions. Conversely, Diego Costa has tallied 16 of Chelsea’s 70 goals (22.86%). Sergio Aguero has 18 of Manchester City’s 79 (22.78%) Alexis Sanchez has 20 of Arsenal’s 86 (23.25%) and Sadio Mane 11 of Liverpool’s 68 (16.17%).
Tottenham are United’s closest challengers in the over-reliance stakes, with Harry Kane registering nearly 30% of their 64 goals. The major difference of course is their respective ages. 23 year-old Kane feasibly has a decade at the top level still to come, while Ibrahimovic is closer to the finishing line and a contract extension isn’t penned yet. Also, both Delle Alli and Heung Son-Min have gone past double figures.
Ibrahimovic is United’s top scorer over the past two seasons, and he only joined the club in July. The paucity of goals elsewhere is an issue. Neither Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney or Marcus Rashford have got to ten goals so far, with Juan Mata ahead of them on nine goals. Indeed, Rashford has been shunted to the wing for much of this season and has struggled to replicate his lethal finishing from the latter stages of Louis Van Gaal’s reign.
Unleashing Henrikh Mkhitaryan – the £30 million Bundesliga player of the year – has certainly helped productivity. The reality is though, if Ibrahimovic doesn’t supply the goals, United don’t tend to win. His one major dip in form coincided with United falling from third to eight in the table. In fact, of their 14 league wins this season, only three have come without Zlatan scoring. This is a major reason why they remain in sixth position. Ibrahimovic has scored 18 times in his last twenty games, and United have lost once in that period.
Ibrahimovic’s conversion rate is also around 10% down on his career average – so that is a factor as well – but remove his goals and United would be below Everton, nine points off the Champions League places. As things stand, he should surpass 30 goals, a truly remarkable feat midway through his thirties.
Beyond the next few months, 2017 contains much intrigue at Old Trafford. ‘Second season syndrome’ usually refers to a recently promoted team struggling in their second campaign, but Mourinho only knows second season success. His teams generally peak in year two; the Portuguese has won the league with Chelsea (twice), Inter Milan and Real Madrid.
After finishing third in Mourinho’s first season back at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea recruited Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, and promptly strolled to the title. To bridge the gap and reposition United as contenders, he should be actively seeking reinforcements of comparable stature. Already, a deal for Antoine Griezmann is rumoured to be in the pipeline.
In all likelihood, Ibrahimovic will continue his stint at the club past the summer and carry on his prolificacy. And while United supporters should savour possessing such a rarified talent, it should be their club’s prerogative to segue into a post-Zlatan world in rude health.