We knew it was coming. Jose Mourinho had already made it clear that Manchester United considered the situation “open” regarding Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s potential return and, as such, it is no surprise that the Swede has been handed a new one-year deal.
He has made incredible progress since suffering a serious ACL injury in the Europa League quarter-final win over Anderlecht in April, meaning a decision on his future was always going to come sooner rather than later. In many ways, the announcement could not have come at a better time, with United buzzing from their pair of 4-0 wins in the Premier League and about to enter the Champions League once more.
The 35-year-old was the stand-out story of United’s trophy-laden 2016-17 season, netting 28 times in 46 games before being struck down by injury. He scored twice in the EFL Cup final win over Southampton, after announcing his arrival by grabbing the winner in the Community Shield against Leicester, and while he only attended the Europa League final on a medical cart, he had scored five times in nine games during United’s run to Stockholm.
However, perhaps there has been a little hastiness on both sides in agreeing to an extension. On United’s part, they seem to have spent well in the summer and addressed many of the areas which caused concern last term. Their build-up play is more fluid and forceful, their threat is more irresistible, and Romelu Lukaku is having no trouble finding the net at this moment in time.
Against this backdrop, it is hard to see Ibrahimovic commanding a place in the team in the same way he did last term. Only once did Zlatan not start a league game for which he was available last term, and that was the 2-0 win over Chelsea four days before his season-ending injury. It was perhaps no great shock that United turned in their best performance of the campaign in his absence. There was more movement and more verve in the last third.
So often when Zlatan was present, there was a disconnect when United were attempting to put together a mobile threat near the opposition goal. His style didn’t necessarily gel with the kind of approach Mourinho’s side wanted or needed.
When balls were played in to the far post awaiting a natural striker’s run, Ibra was often to be found skulking around the edge of the area instead. He gets his goals in a very different manner to most front men, but that can be a bad thing as well as a good thing.
With Lukaku providing more of what United need right now, Ibrahimovic will have to get far more used to the sight of the Old Trafford bench. He almost comes across as a superfluous addition in this new, vibrant United which Mourinho has put together over the last few months. Ibra deserves more than that as his career nears its end.
This writer has followed much of Ibrahimovic’s career closely, particularly since his arrival in Italy with Juventus in 2006. As such, the phrase ‘Never write off Zlatan’ has become something of a recurring theme on these pages. But this is not the way Ibra should be signing off.
He turns 36 in October and could well be left staring at the end of his career in a year’s time. Should he really be bowing out as a substitute? That is not the way of the self-proclaimed lion. He is a man who has spent his entire career at the centre of the action, and this United team looks better for not having Ibra in it right now.
True, Lukaku cannot be expected to play every game and as such there will be more than a handful of opportunities for Ibrahimovic to play his part. But the larger-than-life character has never been one to like playing second fiddle, and it would be a shame to see his career peter out in such underwhelming fashion.
Of course, the sight of him leaving the field against Anderlecht clutching his knee was not the perfect denouement to his career either, but Ibra might well have to come to terms with a new reality as part of the support cast now that he has signed up to be part of the all-new Manchester United.
“It’s time to finish what I started,” he said on putting pen to paper again, yet he may have to get used to having more finishes than starts.