After 25 games of his Manchester United career, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored 16 goals, which is not bad going for a 35-year-old free-if-you-don't-count-wages transfer. In fact, it's not bad going by any standards, which is why we've decided to take a look back at five of the most notable seasons from five of United's most notable goalscorers, and see how they were getting on after 25 games.
Obviously, we're not saying that Ibrahimovic is the second coming of Denis Law. But wouldn't it be fun if we could heavily imply that?
Denis Law, 46 goals, 1963-64
If Ibrahimovic got off to a decent start this season, then back in 1963-64, Denis Law went off like a steam train that had just remembered it had left the gas on. He didn't score in the Charity Shield (which United lost 4-0 to Everton); he didn't score in the opening league game (a 3-3 with Sheffield Wednesday); and then he scored eight goals in the next five games.
The goals flowed throughout the season, though not always in a steady stream. Just 10 of Law's goals arrived in singles; he also scored seven braces, six hat-tricks, and stuck four past an unfortunate Stoke City. The natural consequence of that was the occasional fallow spell: after scoring three against Willem II in the Cup Winner's he went four whole games without scoring another. There'd probably be crisis talk if that happened today. And it would stop in the fifth game, when he put three past Tottenham.
One can only wonder how many Law might have scored had he played every game, but he missed a fair few, and his 25th game was United's 36th of the season. Anyway, he'd scored 27 goals by that point, which puts him a faintly ridiculous 11 goals ahead of Ibrahimovic.
Ruud van Nistelrooy, 44 goals, 2002-03
Van Nistelrooy's second season at Old Trafford got off to a slow start. He scored just three goals in his opening eight games, two of which came in a 5-0 Champions League qualifying stroll past Hungarian side Zalaegerszeg. And his sluggish opening was matched by his team's: losses to Leeds and Bolton, along with draws against Chelsea and Sunderland, put them in ninth place after six games.
Van Nistelrooy soon woke up, embarking on a run of six in five as United won their first three Champions League group games and dispatched Tottenham, Charlton and Everton in the league. But title-winning consistency wouldn't return until the New Year, and Van Nistelrooy's 25th game was a 1-0 away loss against Blackburn Rovers, three days before Christmas. They lost on Boxing Day too, 1-0 away at Middlesbrough, and at the turn of the year they were in third place, five points behind leaders Arsenal.
Still, 2003 went okay. United dropped just six more points as they went the rest of the league season unbeaten. By the time the season was over, that five point deficit had become a five point lead. And in the real quiz, after 25 games, Van Nistelrooy had scored 18 of his eventual 44. So Ibrahimovic is in touch, then. How exciting.
Cristiano Ronaldo, 42 goals, 2007-08
Another slow start here. Ronaldo didn't score in United's first three games, didn't play in the next three, and it wasn't until he returned to his former team Sporting in the Champions League that he opened his account, securing United a 1-0 win in his fifth game of the season.
However, he soon began to pick up some ominous momentum. At the end of September he scored the only goal of the game away at Birmingham; a week later he put two past Wigan; and then two weeks after than he scored another brace against Dynamo Kiev. Then came the moment that established him as United's primary attacking threat and one of the best players in the world: he scored in 11 of the next 14 games he played, and a hat-trick against Newcastle in his 25th game put him on 22 goals, which places him some way ahead of Ibrahimovic.
Most importantly, of course, that season won Ronaldo his first Ballon d'Or, sparking an obsession for personal achievement — and the recognition of same — that has taken him into the hearts of every football fan around the world.
Tommy Taylor, 34 goals, 1956-57
Unlike Van Nistelrooy and Ronaldo, Tommy Taylor, who would later perish in the Munich air crash, started his best season in perfectly acceptable form. He scored twice in United's second game of the season against Preston North End, another in the following game, and proceeded to pick up goals at a rate of just above one in two until the visit of Anderlecht at the end of September. United scored 10, and Taylor scored three.
Then it all went a little dry. Taylor went five games without scoring, picked up three against Blackpool and Wolves, and then endured another five-game dry spell. Presumably the only thing keeping the papers from going big on TAYLOR'S GOAL DROUGHT — HAS UNITED'S STAR SIGNING LOST HIS TOUCH? was the excellent form of Dennis Viollet and Billy Whelan alongside him, who kept the results good and ensured United's title bid remained alive in the first half of the season.
So though Taylor would eventually outscore both of them — Viollet ended the season with 26, Whelan with 33 — by the time his 25th game came and went he'd picked up a laughably puny 14 goals, two fewer than United's current No. 9. It's on, in other words. It. Is. On.
Wayne Rooney, 34 goals, 2011-12
United's glorious captain has actually notched up two 34-goal seasons, but we've plumped for this one as it took him one fewer appearance and so, by the rules of maths, is better. Plus it fits our purposes nicely. The swings and counterswings of Rooney's form — even across his best seasons — demand and will receive much more attention from historians than we can manage here. But if there's such a thing as a vaguely odd 34-goal season, it was this one.
After all, Rooney's tenth game of the season came against Otelul Gulati in the Champions League. He scored twice, taking his total for the season to 11 … and then he didn't score again for another eight games, including a particularly embarrassing 2-1 loss to Basel that sent United into the Europa League. Weird.
And possibly disastrous. That barren run included the 6-1 thumping by Manchester City, but also a couple of 1-0s over Sunderland and Swansea. In the end, of course, United lost the title on goal difference. Now, we're not saying that this was entirely Rooney's fault — it's a team game — but if he'd managed, say, to stick an extra nine goals past Swansea, we'd never even have heard of Sergio Aguero. Something to think on, there.
Oh, right. The point. After 25 games, Rooney had drawn 15 blanks, and scored 17 goals in the other ten games. Weird. But only one ahead of Ibrahimovic! It's so on.
A note: Conspicuous by its absence here is Dennis Viollet's 1959-60 campaign, in which he scored 32 league goals, a record that still stands. However, his failure to find the net in any of United's three cup games that season means that in the overall list, that season is squeezed out by the five above, plus Law again (64-65, 39 goals), Van Nistelrooy again (01-02, 36 goals), Rooney again (09-10, 34), and David Herd (65-66, 33 goals). That record-breaking season is tied with George Best (67-68) in equal tenth. What a lot of goals Manchester United have scored.