Zlatan Turns 36 This Week. Does He Still Have a Role in Mourinho’s Revitalised Man Utd?

Just over a month ago, it was announced that Zlatan Ibrahimovic was to be re-signed by Manchester United. Predictably, most United fans were delighted with the deal.

After all, Ibrahimovic, well into his thirties, performed admirably over the course of his first season in a United shirt, scoring 27 goals in all competitions. Moreover, the big Swede led United to two titles last term: the League Cup and Europa League. If the former Sweden international could almost miraculously accelerate his comeback from a severe knee injury, who’s to say he won’t make a significant impact in the 2017/18 campaign?

Still, it is important to recognize that circumstances were very different last year. Jose Mourinho had only just taken over a United side reeling from the inhibitory tactical changes implemented by Louis van Gaal. The Red Devils, after finishing outside the Champions League places, were in search of a quick solution to the lack of goal-scorers present under Van Gaal.

Upon Ibrahimovic’s arrival, the ex-PSG player immediately became United’s most potent attacking option. Wayne Rooney’s performances had already begun a steep decline, while Marcus Rashford, just 18-years-old, was hardly prepared to shoulder the goal-scoring burden of the 20-time league champions on his own.

Then, Ibrahimovic was vital to United’s success. However, things have changed; in just over a year, the landscape of the Old Trafford club has altered completely. Romelu Lukaku left Goodison Park to reunite with Mourinho. And since joining, the Belgian has already notched an impressive 5 goals in the Premier League. Meanwhile, Marcus Rashford has added two of his own. No longer United’s primary attacking force, Ibrahimovic will likely find regular match-time hard to come by, even if he manages to regain his previous form.

Age will also affect Ibrahimovic’s ability to feature under Mourinho this season. Yes, Ibrahimovic has defied the powers of time, competing at the highest level well into his thirties. However, even the finest footballers have limits, and Ibrahimovic, who turns 36 next in two days’ time, is only now returning from a season-ending injury. Should Ibrahimovic struggle to re-acclimate to the rigors of the Premier League, regaining his previous form will take time – time neither Ibrahimovic nor United have.

That is not to say Ibrahimovic is of no use to the club; he has won silverware in Spain, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and England, managing to maintain peak physical condition throughout his career. His experiences will provide United’s younger heads with the perfect template on which to model their own careers.

But perhaps the greatest advantage of Ibrahimovic’s return is an increase in squad depth. After winning the Europa League, United are now competing across four competitions. Consequently, the ability to rotate players in and out of the starting XI becomes imperative, particularly over the busy Christmas period. In a role not too dissimilar to Rooney’s last season, Ibrahimovic is likely to feature in certain fixtures, granting the likes of Lukaku and Rashford a rest.

Furthermore, the powerful frontman can be a valuable presence off the bench. Ibrahimovic possesses exceptional close control and vision, often dropping into pockets of space in order to receive the ball. His qualities contrast distinctly with those of Lukaku and Rashford, seeing as the latter two rely primarily on physical prowess to latch onto a cross or ball in behind. Ibrahimovic’s distinct approach will duly add another dimension to our attack, especially when United are in search of a goal.

Ibrahimovic may no longer be the first name on Mourinho’s team sheet as he was just last year. But the well-travelled striker, even in a diminished role, has the nous and capacity to remain a real asset.