The Zlatan Ibrahimovic Effect: Ranking Manchester Utd Strikers on Debut Seasons

Paul Ansorge@@utdrantcastFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2017

The Zlatan Ibrahimovic Effect: Ranking Manchester Utd Strikers on Debut Seasons

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    Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates his goal against West Ham United.
    Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates his goal against West Ham United.Alastair Grant/Associated Press

    Zlatan Ibrahimovic is tearing up the goalscoring charts at Manchester United. The former Sweden international has 13 Premier League goals and 18 in all competitions for the Red Devils, having made 25 starts and three substitute appearances.

    He has quickly become talismanic, but how does his start compare with other United forwards from the Premier League era? Let's take a look at how some of the best strikers in the club's recent past started their time with the club.

    We've looked at trophies won, impact and, of course, goals scored to produce this ranking. It's a tough task because there have been some absolute belters. It is important to note the order is based on their debut seasons rather than any long-term impact they had.

    Without further ado, let's get started.


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    Ibrahimovic wheels away in celebration after another United goal.
    Ibrahimovic wheels away in celebration after another United goal.OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

    Ibrahimovic can not yet be properly analysed, but another word about his initial impact seems worthwhile.

    Arriving in the Premier League at 34 and firing his way to joint-second in the goalscoring chart is a remarkable achievement. The second half of the season will define where he would belong on this list, both in terms of how his own form develops and in terms of how United finish the campaign.

    Whatever happens next, it has been a lot of fun so far. He is a remarkable footballer, and seeing him in a red shirt is a pleasure.

9. Dimitar Berbatov

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    Berbatov at his Old Trafford unveiling.
    Berbatov at his Old Trafford unveiling.PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

    Dimitar Berbatov was a beautiful footballer to watch in action, but it is probably fair to say his impact in his debut season at United was muted.

    United won the league and reached the Champions League final in 2008/09, making for a successful season on the whole. However, Berbatov had to settle for fourth billing behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez. And he arrived with the club at the peak of its powers, meaning there was less need for a new arrival to make a huge impact.

    What effect he did have was perhaps most felt in Europe, where he matched Rooney and Ronaldo's four goals, but with just 14 in total, he sits bottom of the list here for immediate influence on the club's fortunes. Given the impact of the other players on this list made, it is no great shame.

8. Wayne Rooney

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    Wayne Rooney scores one of three goals on his electric Champions League debut in 2004.
    Wayne Rooney scores one of three goals on his electric Champions League debut in 2004.PAUL BARKER/Getty Images

    In 2004/05, United finished third in the league, runners-up in the FA Cup and only made it to the first knockout round of the Champions League. It was a campaign full of disappointment.

    What was not in the least bit disappointing, though, was Wayne Rooney's incredibly promising debut season. He finished the season as the club's top scorer, on 17 goals, though this was partly due to Ruud van Nistelrooy's game time being limited by injury.

    Rooney exceeded expectations for such a young player—he only turned 19 in October 2004—and was important to what United did achieve in that campaign. He is ranked this low, though, because they did not achieve a great deal by their lofty standards.

    Much better was just ahead for both Rooney and United.

7. Andy Cole

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    Andy Cole celebrates one of five goals against Ipswich Town in 1995.
    Andy Cole celebrates one of five goals against Ipswich Town in 1995.Anton Want/Getty Images

    He went on to score more goals for the Red Devils than all but 16 people have managed. At 121 goals, Andy Cole sits between Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on 126 and Ronaldo on 118 on the all-time list.

    His impact during his debut season was pretty extraordinary given he scored 12 goals in just 17 starts and one substitute appearance. That rate of scoring is enough to see him pip Rooney to this spot.

    However, he cannot rate any higher because his missed chances against West Ham United on the final day of the season were part of the reason the Red Devils lost out on the title, finishing second to Blackburn Rovers.

    But as with Rooney, better was to come. The seeds of a fruitful United career had been sown.

6. Ruud van Nistelrooy

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    Van Nistelrooy and Ferguson at the Dutchman's unveiling.
    Van Nistelrooy and Ferguson at the Dutchman's unveiling.MARTYN HARRISON/Getty Images

    In with a shout at the title of "best out-and-out centre-forward in Manchester United's history," Ruud van Nistelrooy might count himself a little unlucky to be so low in this list given he scored more goals in his debut season than anyone else on it.

    With 23 goals in the league and 36 in all competitions, Van Nistelrooy was just about as good as anyone could have asked him to be during the 2001/02 campaign.

    The problem is, it was not enough. United finished 10 points off the title in third place, a title they had won the three seasons before. They had a more than decent European run, making it to the semi-finals of the Champions League, but that can hardly be called a triumph.

    It may be a little controversial, but Van Nistelrooy's goalscoring achievements are weighted lower here than some players who did less themselves but provided the team with a greater uplift.

    The Dutchman's timing, so impeccable in the box, was off in terms of his United career in general. He arrived just as a wave was breaking, and his excellence never spurred the team around him to greatness.

5. Carlos Tevez

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    Tevez quickly became a fan favourite at Old Trafford.
    Tevez quickly became a fan favourite at Old Trafford.PAUL BARKER/Getty Images

    An unpopular figure at United now as a consequence of his time at Manchester City, Carlos Tevez's debut United season coincided with one of the greatest in their history.

    The Red Devils have won the European Cup/Champions League three times, and 2007/08 was one of them. The season belonged to Ronaldo given his 42 goals in all competitions, but it was Tevez at second place in the scoring chart on 19.

    While Van Nistelrooy scored just under twice as many goals as Tevez, the trophies won in 2007/08 and the Argentinian's part in their arrival earn him this place in the rankings.

    He was not spectacularly prolific, but his impact was crucial. He was prepared to run the legs off defenders. Between the Argentina international and Rooney, Ronaldo could not have wished for more selfless accomplices to complement his greatness.

    It was to be a short-lived United career, but it got off to a heck of a start, and the glory in Moscow would have been a lot harder to come by without Tevez.

4. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

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    Solskjaer shows off his skills in his debut United campaign.
    Solskjaer shows off his skills in his debut United campaign.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    In a way, it is shock value that gets Solskjaer such a lofty spot on this list. Almost no one, likely including then-manager Sir Alex Ferguson, would have expected the Norwegian to finish his debut season as United's top scorer.

    He comfortably outscored both Cole and Eric Cantona, finishing the campaign on 18 Premier League goals as United earned yet another top-flight title. He became Cantona's default partner, starting 25 league games and coming on as a substitute on eight occasions.

    This season was the closest United got to European glory during Cantona's time at the club, with bitter disappointment facing them in their semi-final defeat to Borussia Dortmund. But the season as a whole was a success.

    Considering Solskjaer had been expected to be a fringe player, gradually bedded into the system, his was a remarkable achievement and an even more remarkable debut season that's well worth this ranking.

3. Robin van Persie

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    Van Persie's debut season was a thing of magic and wonder.
    Van Persie's debut season was a thing of magic and wonder.Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

    Robin van Persie's incredible debut season could well be worth a higher position on this list. The top three here are separated by wafer-thin margins. The only reason he is third rather than higher is because the the top two players helped lead United to marginally more historic triumphs.

    But coming third here is essentially the same as coming joint-top, and Van Persie will always have a profound place in United's history for being instrumental in ensuring Sir Alex Ferguson was able to retire in a blaze of glory.

    He provided a huge lift to the team when he arrived in August 2012 and seemed to galvanise the players around him while also being there to get them out of trouble when they faltered.

    He started the season like a greyhound out of the traps, and while the scoring rate slowed down around the turn of 2013, he made sure there was a memorable ending by notching an incredible hat-trick at Old Trafford against Aston Villa in the game that secured United the title.

    That hat-trick might be unique since the first goal all but sealed the title, the second earned him goal of the season and the third took him to the top of the division's goalscoring chart.

    His will always be remembered as one of the great debut campaigns.

2. Dwight Yorke

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    Yorke celebrates one of his many debut-season goals.
    Yorke celebrates one of his many debut-season goals.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Top scorer en route to the treble? Check! Managed to fill the gap of creativity and goalscoring left by Eric Cantona's departure? Check! Scored important goals and plenty of them? Check and check again.

    Dwight Yorke's presence was crucial to the near-miraculous achievement of the 1998/99 treble. He contributed across the campaign too—scoring 18 in the league, eight in the Champions League and three in the FA Cup, making him United's top scorer in each of those three competitions.

    It seems hard to imagine another debut campaign will be quite as successful. The only reason he is not No. 1 here is because it cannot quite be said that Yorke turned around the fortunes of the entire club. He helped lift United from incredibly successful to the top of the world, but there is someone who made an even more dramatic impact.

1. Eric Cantona

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    Alex Ferguson was immediately impressed by Eric Cantona's attitude to training and practice.
    Alex Ferguson was immediately impressed by Eric Cantona's attitude to training and practice.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

    In 1999's Managing My Life: My Autobiography, Sir Alex Ferguson wrote of the 1992/93 season: "If, as Bryan Robson suggested, United's rise to championship standard reflected the development in me, no one should have any doubt about the massive contribution made by Eric Cantona. He brought priceless presence and style to the team." 

    This may require some imagination on the part of younger readers, but imagine a United that had not won a league title for 26 years. For more than two decades, they had seen their fiercest rivals dominate, with Liverpool winning title after title as United were reduced to the status of perennial also-rans, plucky losers capable of the odd cup run but nigh on guaranteed to let you down in the league. 

    Sir Alex, changed that, but in order to do so, he needed Cantona. 

    Cantona scored just nine goals in his 21-start debut season. But he changed everything. United were a different proposition with him in the side. And they won the league title they had so desperately craved.

    He set an impossible benchmark for impact because he took on the entire weight of history and won. As Ferguson wrote, he was priceless. And he deserves to be No. 1 here.


    Goal and appearance data per Website of Dreams.


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