Imagining a Manchester United Side with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Attack

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Imagining a Manchester United Side with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Attack
Francois Mori/Associated Press
Ibrahimovic playing for Paris Saint-Germain.

In January, Telegraph Sport reported on an interview with Sky Sports News HQ wherein Zlatan Ibrahimovic's agent talked about a possible move to the Premier League for his client, which the Telegraph suggested would cause "Manchester United fans' ears to prick up." 

Ultimately, there was nothing in what Mino Raiola told Sky Sports News HQ about United. The super-agent said:

I would like to see him in the Premier League. I think it's a game that is made for him with his strength. his ability, his technique, the stadiums with fantastic atmosphere and how football is lived.

It's difficult now because for the first time in his life he wants to be a free agent so that he can look around and have a feeling day by day what he wants to do.

There are a lot of projects on our table but he has not decided yet. Can he go to England? In theory yes he can because he will be a free agent and for sure there are some clubs always interested in him. What we will do at the end, I really don't know.

But if he did make the move to Old Trafford, what might that be like? With his gargantuan self-belief, outrageous skill and proven top-level ability, Ibrahimovic—it takes quite an effort of will not to simply refer to him as "Zlatan" such is the power of his brand—could make the kind of temporary impact that Robin van Persie managed.

Francois Mori/Associated Press
Ibrahimovic celebrates another Paris goal.

Perhaps his would be a cameo remembered with similar fondness to Henrik Larsson's brief stint in a red shirt. Or perhaps it would be a flop, akin to the should-have-been-beautiful-but-was-actually-terrible stint Radamel Falcao endured at Old Trafford.

There are a number of alternative possible scenarios here, let's take them one by one.

Reunited with Jose

The Jose Mourinho-to-United stories have not stopped. The latest is that Atletico Madrid director of football Andrea Berta will join Mourinho at Old Trafford, according to Italian journalist Gianluca DiMarzio (h/t the Metro). 

FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images
Ibrahimovic and Mourinho as Champions League rivals.

Ibrahimovic and Mourinho have history. They were together at Inter, and ahead of the clash between Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea last season, the Sweden international said, per the Mail, "We worked together for one year at Inter. The feeling was great between us and my only regret is that we were together for only one year."

In November 2015, with Mourinho under significant pressure at Chelsea, Ibrahimovic said, per the Star

I had [Pep] Guardiola and then I had Mourinho and he is the masterbrain, the mastermind.

He knows what he needs to do to win. And I learned a lot there. If I was Abramovich would I keep him? Who doesn't want to have Mourinho?

DAMIEN MEYER/Getty Images
Mourinho shouts an instruction at Ibrahimovic from the Inter touchline.

Mourinho clearly had a special touch when it came to Ibrahimovic. In April 2014, he related the story of what had happened when the player, with the league won, was chasing the top-goalscorer position in Serie A, per the Sun:

He was very angry and upset as he came at me. He was shouting "We are champions, I helped a lot to make you champions, now nobody's helping me. I want to go out now. I want to go out!"

But I pretended not to understand him. I pretended I couldn't tell what he was saying.

I said "What? What? Do you want a drink, do you want some water?" and I threw him a bottle. I told him "Here take a drink and go."

And a few minutes later he scored a beautiful goal, one of those backheels of his that he often scores. We won the game and he was the top scorer in the league—25 goals I think. So he was happy in the end.

If Mourinho managed him at United, it would be easy to imagine similar scenes. He could build an attack of mobile young talent around the 34-year old.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Rashford and Memphis warm up: could a blend of youth and experience work for United?

He could use Ibrahimovic's ability to hold up the ball and both occupy and beat defenders to create opportunities for Memphis Depay, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford—assuming he was prepared to nurture United's emerging talent.

And the two of them could plot the demise of Guardiola—their shared rival—at Manchester City.

Louis van Gaal stays, and it goes well

It seemed pretty hard to imagine Louis van Gaal remaining in charge of United next season. However, four back-to-back wins, including an impressive display against Arsenal, and the emergence of Rashford as a genuine force have changed the atmosphere at Old Trafford a little.

Given how bad things got, Van Gaal still does not have a huge amount of goodwill behind him among fans, but if he is still in place, there could be a way he could make an Ibrahimovic-powered attack work.

Essentially, it would be an upgraded version of the attack he has tried to build with Wayne Rooney up front. The Swede might not have the relentless work ethic that Rooney possesses, but a relatively immobile but talented frontman has led the line for United most of this season.

Ibrahimovic has scored more than Rooney this season—no surprise given he outscored Rooney even when the now-United captain was at his most prolific. He has also provided comfortably more league assists this season—10 to Rooney's four.

THOMAS SAMSON/Getty Images
Zlatan and his PSG team-mates show off their trophy haul.

He would offer less defensively but would be a greater threat from set pieces, and probably better able to conjure something out of nothing if their recent careers are anything to go by.

Given his status as a serial winner of league titles, Ibrahimovic's presence could even be an inspiration for real success.

Louis van Gaal stays, but it goes badly

This scenario is perhaps the most amusing, though not for United fans. It is easy to imagine the talented, self-possessed Ibrahimovic falling out with Van Gaal, a man prone to such fall-outs.

DUSAN VRANIC/Associated Press/Associated Press
Ibrahimovic during his Ajax days, when he crossed paths with Van Gaal.

One of the reasons it is easy to imagine, of course, is because it has already happened. In his autobiography I am Zlatan (h/t Sports Keeda) he writes of his time at Ajax

We headed to a training camp in Portugal and, by that time Leo Beenhakker had resigned as director [of football] and was replaced by Louis van Gaal. Van Gaal was a pompous ass. He was a little like Co Adriaanse. He wanted to be a dictator, without a hint of a gleam in his eye. As a player, he'd never stood out, but he was revered in the Netherlands because, as a manager, he'd won the Champions League with Ajax and received some medal from the government.

He goes on:

Then Van Gaal started to explain, and, believe me, I'd heard it all before. It was the same old stuff about how Nine—that is, me— defends to the right, while Ten goes to the left, and vice versa, and he drew a bunch of arrows and finished with a really harsh "Do you understand? Do you get all this?," and I took it as an attack.

"You can wake up any of the players at three in the morning," I said, "and ask them how to defend and they'll rattle it off in their sleep: Nine goes here and Ten goes there. We know that stuff, and we know you're the one who came up with it. But I've trained with [Marco] Van Basten, and he thinks otherwise."

"Excuse me?"

"Van Basten says Number Nine should save his strength for attacking and scoring goals, and, to tell the truth, now I don't know who I should listen to, Van Basten—who's a legend—or Van Gaal?" I said, putting special emphasis on the name Van Gaal, as if he were some completely insignificant figure.

In 2015, Ibrahimovic told Sports Illustrated his relationship with Van Gaal was still "not good," but said it would not affect a potential move to United. He said, "I think a lot of fights would happen, but that's something I like."

So, if Van Gaal signed him and it was not a good fit, there would be plenty of headline fodder. United would no doubt be accused of hampering the development of their talented youngsters by bringing in a superstar at the end of his career. There seems at least a reasonable chance he would spectacularly fall out with Van Gaal.

Whichever way it goes, even imagining Zlatan—that impossible-to-resist first-name moniker—at United is entertaining. Imagine what it will be like if he actually turns up...

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