The Swedish front man still has plenty to offer, but the days of him bullying opposition defenders three times a week appear to be over
“Jose’s a winner, I am a winner and we both know what we want. Wherever we go we win and we will win.”
If anybody was ever in any doubt as to the belief Zlatan Ibrahimovic would have in himself ahead of his first Premier League adventure in the summer, he immediately made it clear that he had every faith that he and Jose Mourinho would succeed at Manchester United.
Four games into his competitive career with United, Ibrahimovic had scored four goals. A debut goal in the Community Shield had been followed by a strike on his league bow and a double on his Old Trafford debut. It seemed he was set to live up to every word of his promise.
But two months on, things are not looking quite so rosy. Zlatan has netted just once in nine games, against Zorya Luhansk in the Europa League, and has looked increasingly detached for long phases of play. The Swede has never been one for covering every blade of grass but his presence even on the periphery of proceedings has become more and more negligible over recent weeks.
His display in the first half of Wednesday’s EFL Cup derby with Manchester City was perhaps the worst he has delivered in a number of years. He rarely got into the game, and when he dropped deeper to try to get more involved in build-up play, his touch was regularly lacking. The fact that he had the worst passing accuracy of any United player in that first 45 minutes will come as a surprise to nobody who witnessed the game.
A better shift in the second half made the difference in the end, with his clever turn fooling Nicolas Otamendi and neat footwork forcing Pablo Maffeo to stand off in the build-up to Juan Mata’s winning goal. He still had time to take a complete air-shot at a low cross from the left though, marking a third straight game in which he had missed a gilt-edged chance.
At Chelsea on Sunday he headed tamely over the bar from an excellent Antonio Valencia cross just as United were seemingly gaining a first-half foot-hold in a game they would eventually lose 4-0, while the visit to Liverpool six days earlier will be remembered almost as much for his miscue from Paul Pogba’s cross as it will for Mourinho’s questionable tactics.
It is rare that someone of Ibrahimovic’s uber-confident manner should suffer a crisis of faith, but one would be forgiven for believing that he might be doubting his ability to deliver. Now 35, he is reaching a period where even his highly-dedicated approach to staying in shape can only take him so far. An extra yard of pace is lost in later years, and most who have played in the Premier League will tell you that the velocity of the division requires something more out of you in that regard.
If anyone can overcome the physical demands, then surely Zlatan can, yet at the moment he rightly has people questioning his recent performances. Many are even wondering whether he has the capacity to turn his fortunes around. The palpable effect he has on players like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial will only mean so much to people if he continues to misfire in front of goal.
Mourinho said in the lead-up to October’s international break that Ibrahimovic was not in need of a rest since his retirement from Sweden duty allowed him time off other players would not have. But as Burnley come to town on Saturday, and with two 90-minute showings under his belt already this week, now might be the right time to consider giving the big man a breather.
He has yet to play three games in a week since moving from Paris Saint-Germain and it would be foolish to risk his fitness against Sean Dyche’s men, however much he needs a positive performance after a difficult run.
When Mourinho worked with Zlatan at Inter in 2008-09 he saw enough from the striker to know that he wanted to work with him again. But he is no longer the ultra-durable 27-year-old of that time, and as such he needs greater support. He needs more energy around him than Wayne Rooney has provided. He needs a better delivery of cross than he has generally got from the left side of the pitch. If you are going to get the best out of a 35-year-old Zlatan you are going to have to do more than just throw him out there and wish him luck.
This will not be the end of Zlatan, but maybe it is the beginning of the end. He can still contribute a couple of times a week but the phase of his career in which he was an automatic starter every week wherever he went is over. United fans will just hope that the run which has seen him lift a league championship in 12 of his last 13 seasons is not about to end too.