Zlatan Ibrahimovic eh? I mean, really? There a stat flying around on social media today which is frankly staggering. It claims the following:
Goals before turning 30, 232 in 529 games
Goals after turning 30, 246 in 300 games.
When I first read it it sounded so ridiculous that I had to go off and check its accuracy. My brief research has left me not entirely convinced of the goal figures (they aren’t miles off), but that even if my speedy calculations are correct, the point of the tweet still stands. Zlatan has scored more goals for club and country since turning thirty than he had to done to that point. Bearing in mind that he made his debut in his eighteenth year for Malmo and thus played over twelve years prior to his thirtieth birthday, as opposed to five and a half after it, then the ‘games’ figures are likely to be pretty accurate. Given that Wayne Rooney has lost the ability to run or trap a football and has limbs literally falling off every time he leaves the house, the fact that Ibrahimovic has got significantly better after entering his fourth decade is, frankly, staggering. If you compare images of his first decade or so in the game the Swede was a far more lanky, less physically mature figure, but in the later years of his career his body has filled out, making him as powerful as he is skilful. With that in mind the post-thirty explosion is easier to understand, if it still feels super-human.
Some have suggested that those figures are somewhat stat-padded by his years in Ligue-1 at a dominant Paris St Germain. This makes no sense, however, as his pre-thirty period included four seasons in the Eredivisie, three in Sweden and three at an Inter side ludicrously dominant in Serie A after the penalties imposed for Calciopoli, including the relegation of his former club Juventus. Almost every season of his career prior to this one the Swede has played for the most dominant side in whichever league he has found himself, and surely his brief period at United is the ultimate proof that he is not just a bandwaggoner, scoring goals on the coat-tails of the absurd quality of his teammates relative to the league he was in. Coming to the Premier League at thirty-five was an enormous risk, and yet he took it and has produced 24 goals in 36 games in probably the second strongest domestic nation in world football, in a developing team sitting sixth in the table. As frustrating as his overall contribution can be at times, Ibrahimovic is no flat-track bully. What is more remarkable about his tally this season is that for two months between late September and November he couldn’t hit a barn door. He’s averaged over a goal a game since. He’s utterly unique, and it would surprise no one if he were still banging in goals somewhere at 37/38.
If United fans needed reminding of just how much the side is reliant on its two stars, Ibrahimovic and Pogba, this last week will have done the honours. The 3-0 win over St.Etienne featured some horrific finishing at both ends and Mourinho will be thanking his lucky stars that his team go to France without having conceded an away goal or two, but the difference was the creative quality of Pogba and the downright scruffy finishing of Zlatan. A deflected free kick, an open goal and a penalty hardly showcased the Swede’s finishing abilities, but he won the latter himself and had to be in the right place at the right time for the second. He so often is, as RVP and Ruud Van Nistelrooy were before him. The remarkable thing about Thursday’s hat trick is that Ibra was having a pretty ropey game. As with the Watford match before it, he was struggling to hold up and retain the ball. But his confidence never flags, he never doubts himself or panics, and keeps demanding possession. You make your own ‘luck’ and his comes from taking responsibility for set pieces, shooting from the right areas and being in the right place at the right time. Some still complain about his overall contribution, but while he is scoring it is difficult to be over-critical.
It was the Swede and Pogba who decided Sunday’s FA Cup scruff-fest against Blackburn too. Without them United were exposed at the back (no thanks to another ropey showing from Chris Smalling), largely ineffective offensively and struggled to pass fluently or carve the home side open. After conceding early it took the brilliance of Henrikh Mkhitaryan to set Rashford clear to score, but Mourinho had seen enough midway through the second half and sent on the cavalry. United settled thereafter and it was no surprise that it was another of Pogba’s sublime vertical balls that fed Ibrahimovic for the winner. Most players would have lashed at the ball first time or tried to control, thus giving the defender time to get back and make a tackle. But Zlatan waited and waited before side-footing brilliantly into the far corner of the net. Pogba gives his team another dimension creatively, with his directness and ability to play accurate balls over the top of a defence, reducing the need for crossing and intricate passing to break a team down. Thanks to both he and Ibra it was job done, if not especially convincingly against a club and team in crisis, but United are into the quarter finals. Where they face Chelsea away. Rats cocks.
Should United fans be worried that they are so reliant on two players? In an ideal world it’s not great, but this is a process of rejuvenation and it’s an improvement on being totally reliant on a 19 year old, one who now forms part of the pair of back-up matchwinners Mourinho has, alongside Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Last year there were no back-ups. United will no doubt be hoping to sign a stellar player or two more next summer and the need to flog one or two players match after match will be diluted further. Or that is surely the plan, anyway. Over to you and your Tardis full of money Ed.
Newspaper reports this last week suggested that Mourinho may be open to selling Luke Shaw in the summer, and the left back was once more absent this week despite being fully fit. Mourinho denied that he would be willing to part with the player, throwing the journo-police amongst the United support into full witch-hunt mode on social media. The stories may or may not be true, but those with a virtual badge and truncheon may wish to consider that the Portuguese vehemently denied that David Luiz and Juan Mata would be sold by Chelsea weeks before both were packed off to PSG and United respectively. Everybody lies in football all the time, for obvious and very valid reasons, and the existence or absence of quotes does not make a story or claim right or wrong. The proof of the pudding in football is always in the eating. Or something. Deep.
If this week reminded us who is most valuable to United, it also served as an ongoing reminder of who is unlikely to last longer term under Mourinho. Chris Smalling again had a difficult two games and must now be fourth choice at the club. It would be no surprise if he were first out the door this summer should the club invest in a new centre back. Matteo Darmian struggled at full back against Blackburn, joining Smalling in looking uncomfortable on the ball and unconvincing without it, whilst Jesse Lingard had a performance to forget, again. If the latter is spared in the next transfer window it will be because of his ‘homegrown’ status, nationality and a willingness to only play one in five or six games. He will surely only be satisfied with that for so long.
Reports this week suggested (for a second time) that United are to offer Mourinho a new five year contract. As with last time this story was mooted, that would seem to be somewhat premature. The team and squad are nowhere near full recovery yet, despite the progress made, and whilst Cup progress has been a bonus, Champions League football for next season has not yet been secured. Regardless of mitigation, tying themselves in with a manager who has not yet delivered the level of football the club demands would be absurd, particularly when the man in question is extremely happy at the club and has two and half years left on his existing deal. Where would he potentially be lured away to instead? The grand tour of Europe has been completed and Mourinho is where he wants to be, somewhere he is paid a fortune. A new contract is not required.
Also in the papers this week have been stories about Rooney potentially moving to China, with the nation’s clubs still able to recruit. With the club goalscoring record broken and game-time now rare, it wouldn’t surprise me, although it’s more likely he leaves in the summer. It has always been assumed that the player would eventually move to the US, but £36m per-annum for a year or two on the other side of the world? Oh go on then.