There are so many people who seem to want Zlatan Ibrahimovic to fail at every turn. For years he was decried by his critics as a Champions League flop, unable to score goals when the going got tough. Then, when he continued to win title after title across Europe, he was told he would never be able to cut it in the Premier League.
But now the Swede is Manchester United’s shining light. February has barely begun in the 35-year-old’s first season at Old Trafford and yet he has already become the first United player of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era to score 20 goals in a season. And, as he warned after helping to see off champions Leicester City for the third time this term, he is far from done yet.
“I have a target in my head but I will not say it. We are not there yet!” he told reporters at the King Power Stadium following the 3-0 win. “This is something I have been doing every year, and this is nothing new for me… I keep producing. I have 20 and seven assists, so the statistics so far are the same region as other years except for last year because that was a crazy year.”
Last year was indeed a stand-out, with a career-high 50 goals netted in 51 games as he waved farewell to Paris Saint-Germain. But one look at his statistics shows that was simply a slight exaggeration of what are fundamentally phenomenal goal returns over the past 10 years.
Because that is how long it has been since Ibrahimovic last failed to net 20 times in a single campaign.
Only Cristiano Ronaldo can boast a similar record, having reached the 20 mark in 11 straight seasons, but the Real Madrid star has had the benefit of spending eight of those years in a settled environment at the Santiago Bernabeu and the other three with a flying United. Zlatan has delivered despite a far more nomadic existence which has taken in five clubs in four different leagues over the past decade. Even Lionel Messi was a year short of becoming known as a world great when Ibra kicked his wonderful scoring form into action.
As Watford head for Old Trafford for Saturday’s Premier League fixture, they do so knowing that Ibrahimovic is as dangerous as he has ever been. Not even two-thirds of the way through the season, a 30-goal return matching Robin van Persie’s memorable debut campaign of 2012-13 is not beyond him. And we should be anything but surprised if it happens.
Wherever he has gone, he has succeeded. He is simply the most adaptable and consistent goal-scorer of the modern game. Successive 20-goal campaigns in 2007-08 and 2008-09 at Inter came under two different managers, Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho, who played markedly different systems. Then his supposedly failed experiment under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona saw him deliver 21 goals and 12 assists… some failure!
When he returned to Italy with Milan he notched another 56 goals and 25 assists in two seasons, including a then-career high 35 in 2011-12, before heading for Ligue 1 to score 156 and assist 58 in four years.
There was a spell when people took it upon themselves to decide that if Zlatan finished his career without collecting a Champions League winners’ medal then he would feel like something was missing. He has insisted time and again that he does not consider it the be-all and end-all that some would have you believe.
But if there is a more deserving player than he in the modern game, they have yet to make themselves known. This season looks set to be only the second in 14 years in which Zlatan will not finish up with a league title. Everywhere he goes, he wins. Everywhere he goes, he scores.
Those doubting Ibrahimovic’s record will never be satisfied. If he went on to score 40 this term, they would find something wrong with it. If he were to win the Champions League with United next season, it would be down to anyone other than the big man from Malmo.
The truth is that he is one of the greatest strikers the 21st century game has seen, and it is worth noting that he lies just 26 goals short of 500 in his exceptional career. With a second season at Old Trafford potentially in the offing, don't be surprised to see the indefatigable Swede reach that mark as a United player around this time next year.