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The Great Red Debate: How good will Zlatan Ibrahimovic be for Manchester United?

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has made an impressive start to his Manchester United career, and in this week’s Great Red Debate, Busby Babe writers Ryan Baldi and Jack Sargeant discuss what we can expect the Swede to achieve over the next two years.

Manchester United v Southampton - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Ryan: As far as making an immediate impact at a new club goes, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has pretty much nailed it since signing for Manchester United in July this year.

The veteran Swedish striker came with an almighty pedigree and a level of self belief that is beyond comprehension to most mere mortals, but there was no shortage of doubters.

Despite breaking the 50-goal barrier for Paris Saint-Germain last season, some argued that, at 34, Ibrahimovic was past his best and that the Premier League would prove to be a much more difficult proposition than Ligue 1.

Never one to disappoint, Ibrahimovic set about proving his detractors wrong from pretty much the minute he pulled on the red shirt. A spectacular scissor kick in a friendly match against Galatasaray in Gothenburg, was followed by a dramatic late winner in his first (semi-) competitive outing against Premier League Champions Leicester City in the Community Shield at Wembley.

When Premier League business began, the former AC Milan and Barcelona player scored a stunning 25-yard strike away at Bournemouth and followed it up with a brace on his home debut against Southampton last week.

By any measure, Ibrahimovic has made an incredible start to life at Old Trafford.

But what can we expect the 34-year-old (he turns 35 in October) to achieve at the club during his two-year stay? Can this current level of productivity be sustained?

Jack: I must admit, having been bitten once (thanks Falcao ... ) I was a little sceptical about the Zlatan signing. But even after just a few matches, it seems clear to me that my fears were unfounded. Whereas Falcao had never really managed to recover from a string of serious injuries, Zlatan arrived at Old Trafford with a clean bill of health and — perhaps more importantly — a sustainable playing style, based on technique and sheer strength rather than an explosive pace.

While it would only be realistic to expect some kind of drop-off in Zlatan’s extraordinary scoring record over the coming weeks and months, I’m now optimistic he’s going to play a very big role for United over the next couple of seasons. He’s certainly useful for more than just flogging shirts, which is already an improvement on base expectation.

Ryan: "Age is only a number" is a tired old cliché that is practically meaningless ... until you apply it to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Although he’s almost 35 — an age at which very few footballers are able to compete and influence games at the highest level — he has clearly taken care of himself to the point that, physically, he is capable of things you’d only expect from a much younger player.

His level of athleticism is absolutely remarkable for a man in his mid thirties who’s been playing at the top end of the game for about 16 years; the acrobatic scissor kicks, the incredible spring when jumping for a header, the way he contorts his body to connect with a mid-air back-heel flick -- it’s beyond impressive.

And the fact that Zlatan has never been especially quick suggests that, in his current condition, he can still be a major player for at least another year or two.

Now, having said all that, I don’t expect him to be able to maintain his current rate of 1.5 goals per Premier League game, but there’s no reason why he couldn’t get near the 20/25-goal mark for season.

Beyond his goals, though, could Ibrahimovic’s biggest impact be a mental one? He’s a renowned serial winner with a group of young, impressionable players ready to study at his feet, could this be where Zlatan makes his legacy at United?

Jack: It seems to me that Zlatan really is a natural leader, as hackney a phrase as that is. It’s clear that the younger players really do look up to him, and he seems to relish being one of the club’s elder statesmen. That said, it is always hard to quantify the extent to which these mentors have an impact on younger players. I think that ultimately Zlatan’s legacy will be made on the pitch, just as it was for the likes of Eric Cantona and Robin van Persie — two names I really do think he can emulate.

That said, there were whispers before Zlatan’s arrival that he would join in some kind of player-assistant manager role, which now no longer looks as ridiculous as it did at the time. Perhaps he’ll stay on at United, even after he opts to finally hang up his boots. Until then, his contribution on the pitch is the only barometer by which we can reasonably measure his utility.

Ryan: It’s early days in the season and, as yet, United haven’t been significantly tested, so this is pure conjecture, but I could see Ibrahimovic being the kind of leader who will relish the big games. It’s easy to imagine him being the one to rally the troops when the chips are down, and squeeze an extra percentage or two out of the players around him -- that’s something I’m looking forward to seeing this season, and something that has perhaps been missing: a level of leadership that is more considered than simply screaming at those around you.

I’ve seen a lot of people concerned with Marcus Rashford’s lack of game time (the teenager hasn’t played a single minute of the club’s first two Premier League games) but I’m not too worried about that. I think that, at 18, having the burden of being the team’s primary goal-scorer lifted by a player of Ibrahimovic’s standing, is a good thing for Rashford.

And as time goes on — perhaps next season more than this — I’d expect to see a tapering of Ibrahimovic’s minutes on the pitch, with Rashford, if all goes to plan, being passed the torch.

Are you of the opinion that Zlatan is getting in the way of Rashford’s development, or do you see a long-game at play here?

Jack: I’m perfectly happy with the state of affairs at the moment. At no other club would the supporters deem it acceptable for a scrawny academy kid (no matter how gifted) to be the team’s designated striker heading into the season; I don’t think that should be the case at United either.

He’s still only 18, and still has plenty of time to develop away from the limelight before really needing first team football. Hopefully, as you suggest, he can learn much from being Zlatan’s understudy, and can continue to impress when called upon. That José Mourinho hasn’t looked to farm him out on loan is clearly an indicator that he considers Rashford an important part of the squad, and a position in the shadows may even be preferable than saddling him with a hefty burden of expectation.

Ryan: So, to finish off, what do you think would represent success during Ibrahimovic’s two years at United, both for him personally, and for the team?

I think that, in terms of figures, if he can put up 20 goals this season and 15 next, that’ll have been fantastic contribution. And if his influence and ability raises the level of the team as we hope it has and will, I could see him winning his fourteenth league championship medal before he moves on to the next phase of his career.

Jack: I think you’re bang on. No disagreement here.