News ID: 154217
Published: 0714 GMT July 01, 2016

United hope of instant success with Zlatan

United hope of instant success with Zlatan

By Gabriele Marcotti You wanted a statement? You got one. This is box office: Zlatan Ibrahimovic has announced that he will arrive at Manchester United.

How far back do you have to go to find the last legitimate global football-transcending A-lister to arrive at Old Trafford? (And by A-lister, we mean not just a blue chip superstar, but a commercial juggernaut who generates hype and page views, wherever he goes ...), wrote.

Angel Di Maria (2014)? Robin van Persie (2012)? Carlos Tevez (2007)? Rio Ferdinand (2002)? Juan Sebastian Veron (2001)?

All great footballers who enjoyed varying fortunes at Manchester United. But it's fair to say none of them came close to registering on the hype meter the way United's two latest, seismic,  arrivals have done. Jose Mourinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic aren't just a very good manager and a very good centre-forward, respectively. They are also one-man corporations: part billboard, part celebrity, part eyeball magnet, part pageview aggregators.

And the fact that both turned up at Old Trafford within a month or so of each other is significant. In the short-term, it gives Manchester United a global heft that was in danger of waning over the past three seasons of futility: not among club fans necessarily, but among the neutrals and among the casuals who bring in the big sponsorships.

That may or may not have been front-and-centre in the club's thinking, but it's a side-effect, and a positive one. United's narrative, at least for a while, won't simply be one of schadenfreude - "what would Fergie have done?" - and mocking embattled chief executive Ed Woodward.

There is no question that Ibrahimovic, like Mourinho, makes United a better team. He has spent 16 full seasons as a professional footballer,  he has won the league title in 13 of those. In 12 of them, he was his team's leading scorer, which rather puts into context the accusation that his trophy cabinet is full to bursting because he only plays for the very best teams. While it's true that he tends to play for dominant clubs, it's equally true that he tends to dominate those clubs.

And that sets up one of the main issues surrounding his arrival. Wherever he's been, it's been all about him; he becomes the centrepiece and everyone else has to adjust.

It's not a coincidence that things did not end well at the one club who did not accommodate that: Barcelona, in 2009-10. He fell out badly with Pep Guardiola and, by the end, he was a foreign object in every sense, lasting 90 minutes just once after March 28 that year. (That said, he did score 19 goals in all competitions for Barcelona that season and helped them win the league title and the Club World Cup.)

It used to be said that while teams with Ibrahimovic in the starting XI tend to do well in terms of results, they tend not to play well in terms of performance. That was likely true at least until the latter seasons at Paris Saint-Germain, though given the imbalance of resources in Ligue 1, it's tough to judge. The temptation to simply play everything through him was simply too strong, mainly because it yielded results. Ibrahimovic's teams - again, Barca and, to some degree, latter day PSG apart - tended to be one-dimensional for that very reason.

Indeed, perhaps the most one-dimensional (and, let's face it, ugly) side he ever played on was during Mourinho's first season at Inter.

The game plan consisted of little more than long balls in Zlatan's general direction and the occasional rampage from Brazilian right-back Maicon down the flank. Inter went on to win the Serie A title by 10 points, so you can't say it didn't work, but it's not a coincidence that the side went on to win the Treble the following summer after Ibrahimovic left and the team was revamped with no fewer than six new starters.

That was seven years ago. Ibrahimovic and Mourinho aren't what they were then. We all grow and evolve, we learn from our mistakes and, in Ibrahimovic's case, our skillsets change. But there is an inescapable fact: There will be a guy bigger, stronger and more talented - far more talented in most cases - than anybody else on the field at the top of the United formation. And it would be hugely counterintuitive not to get him the ball as quickly and as often as possible.

His presence will, obviously, have a knock-on effect on United's squad. The very nature of his game is to slow things down and when you have two hugely gifted young roadrunners like Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, it's something to think about.

There's also the age-old Wayne Rooney conundrum. Will he play in the hole behind the striker? Will he be the deep-lying playmaker? Will he partner Ibrahimovic up front, perhaps with Rashford and Martial wide in what would be a distinctly un-Mourinho like lineup?

We can speculate about this all summer. And, truth be told, it's rather pointless until we know what pieces Woodward and Mourinho can fit around him; after all, you can't imagine this being United's only attacking signing. What does appear obvious is that this team will look nothing like Louis van Gaal's United sides.

The other obvious corollary is that if some found Mourinho a short-term appointment, Ibrahimovic is even more of a band-aid. He turns 35 in October and, at best, it's hard to see United getting more than two productive seasons out of him. That's not a big deal per se, as long as Rashford and Martial continue to develop in the interim, though that's not something to be taken for granted either.

The main message this sends is that United want (maybe even need) to win straight away. This isn't a "process" like it was with Van Gaal. This is the pursuit of instant silverware, possibly at the expense of team development. The impression is that there's an economic imperative behind it: The brand needs some polishing to keep the sponsors happy.

But that's fine. Forward planning is great, but ultimately, football clubs - especially ones like United in the past quarter century - exist to win titles. Three years with only an FA Cup in extra time against Alan Pardew's Crystal Palace is simply not up to United's standards.

Could it all go wrong? Of course it could. Ibrahimovic may be older and wiser and, after spending years as a cartoonish villain, ready to embrace cult hero status, but he's also a guy with 13 red cards in his career. He and Mourinho may be best friends right now and undoubtedly had a great relationship at Inter, but it's equally true that he walked out on the club and forced a move.

There's also the fact that PSG and United are vastly different clubs playing in vastly different leagues. In Paris, he ruled the roost with a direct line to the owners (and one he was not shy about using); the Glazers, on the other hand, simply aren't the cuddly, diva-coddling types. Equally, he was surrounded in Paris by veterans with big personalities who had already won plenty. At United, with a few exceptions, that won't be the case.

Most of all, PSG dominated Ligue 1 and spent most games camped out in the opposition half. Not only is there more competition - and better competition - in the Premier League, Mourinho's teams tend to not play that way.

Those are the caveats. And, sure, they matter, but it's also a question of judging a team's actions based on what the priorities are. The real priorities, not the opportunistic ones spouted in mission statements and background briefings. Actions speak louder than words and the additions of Mourinho and Ibrahimovic shout it from the rooftops: United want to win straight away.

And this, more than anything, represents a break from the past. Scroll back to the top of this piece and you'll see a partial list of ready-made superstars signed by the club. What's stunning is how rarely Manchester United signed the finished article over the past 15 years. The modus operandi was usually to sign players on a clear, upward arc: from Wayne Rooney to Cristiano Ronaldo to David De Gea.

They didn't always get it right - you'll find Eric Djemba-Djemba, Anderson, Mame Biram Diouf and Bebe on the list as well - but there were more hits than misses and, crucially, there was a strong, successful core (the Class of '92) that seemingly played on forever.

The model has changed. Maybe we'll go back to it one day if the likes of Martial, Rashford, Luke Shaw, Jesse Lingard, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson emulate the Class of '92. But for now, at least, there's a new primary objective.

Just win. By any means necessary.


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