“Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin,' thought Alice 'but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!”
All of a sudden, Zlatan Ibrahimović will not be playing for Manchester United, maybe as soon as the summer. But the impact of his time at United may be felt for many years to come. Barring injury, Ibrahimović is on course to get the fabled 30+ goals in a season – though, surprisingly, it is not entirely all about him and his numbers.
Backed by a healthy traveling allocation, a fifth round FA Cup tie at Ewood Park conjured up bookends of Alex Ferguson’s United titles, and Eric Cantona was an obvious catalyst for Ferguson’s breakthrough. Ibrahimović is having a similar effect for José Mourinho.
Step by step, Mourinho has pretty much been pitch-perfect thus far, and you sense he’s hitting his stride now. Last week Mourinho had to wield a stick – feeling strongly enough to disclose its use publicly – during half-time at home against Saint-Étienne in response to a flat display from his side. In the same week, Mourinho sent a couple of prize carrots on in Paul Pogba and Ibrahimović to turn the tie from Blackburn, whose performance belied their current plight in the Championship, duly praising his United players for their “professional attitude.” Two very different headaches requiring a certain tact to prevent a migraine, with an application that Ferguson would be pleased with.
Eliminating further stutters in the league will be vital and Mourinho’s insistence on playing Ibrahimović shows no sign of letting up. Clearly unfazed by events in Sweden over the weekend, Ibrahimović’s winner off the bench at Blackburn exhibited patience at its finest in one flash of timing, execution and a cartoon grin. A goal that gets better on repeated viewing. Mourinho’s patience is also paying off in many areas, he has needed plenty of it – United are, after all, still sixth in the league. But they are positioned nicely and have a cup final on Sunday. The hurdles are coming thick and fast and, while it could go either way this season, you rather assume Mourinho is enjoying the prospect after some time shuffling his hand.
Those Ibrahimović numbers: 24 goals already this season, 18 in his last 21. Since the start of last season, Ibrahimović (74) is up there in goals with Messi (75) and Ronaldo (73). No other Premier League player has played more games in all competitions – he is 35. 35! And almost religiously plays 90 minutes. Frighteningly, there’s actually a little room for improvement linking up with Pogba.
A machine. And yet, like Cantona, it is not simply stats and match-winning goals that is elevating United, not even playing in others around him, but a sheer force of personality which refuses to wilt in the face of resistance, reminding teammates of the required mentality when they start to doubt and shrink.
Had Twitter existed in the 90s, you wonder whether pockets of Cantona skeptics would be as prevalent, which there are significant amounts of with Ibrahimović. That’s not to say he is perfect, or perfect for United. Impatience for Rashford to start as the main focal point is also understandable, as is empathy towards a nice sit down at 35, but it’s not a stretch to imagine Rashford is being unburdened during the major flux of Mourinho's first season. The suggestion is when Ibrahimović leaves, Rashford takes over bolstered by whatever he’s gleaned and been privy to.
Joe Brolly neatly summarises a story from David Preece about Ibrahimović:
“Preece was the Aberdeen goalie when they played a pre-season tournament game against an Ajax team that had the young Swede at centre-forward. The match was barely started when a ball was slid through between the centre-halves and Ibrahimović was through one-on-one. Preece advanced, and as he readied himself, the ball was casually looped over his head and into the back of the net. One-nil Ajax.
Ten minutes later, a pass was flashed into the big man's feet which he trapped with his right "as though it was made of velcro". Preece thought there wasn't much danger this time, as the centre-half was "up his arse" and Ibrahimović had his back to goal. Until the ball was suddenly flying past him and nestling in the bottom corner. Preece hadn't moved. Two-nil down after just 10 minutes. There was only one thing for it, if they were going to avoid annihilation. Aberdeen captain Russell Anderson volunteered for the job. It took him a while to get near the big man but in the 20th minute as another pass came into his feet, Anderson drove his boot through him, taking the ball and sending the Swede "a good four foot into the air".
Ibrahimović got up with a sour expression on his face and although he wasn't injured, he'd had enough. As Preece put it, "He wasn't going to be kicked around by 'inferior players' so he simply pulled his socks up, dusted himself down and walked off the pitch." As he strolled off, he zig-zagged towards any Aberdeen player in the vicinity, pointed his finger at them one by one and said, "You're shit", "You're shit", "You're shit too", "You're shit" "And you", until he was at the sideline.”
One season could be all that Ibrahimović needs, or has, to bridge the collective mental gap that’s anchoring United players from Champions League football and challenging for the title. Providing a suitable platform for United and Mourinho next season would be reminiscent of Cantona ending the club's 26-year wait for a title – I certainly wouldn’t dare suggest any less – and when Ibrahimović does fade from view, an iconic grin might hang around in the minds of his former colleagues.