Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s imminent return to Manchester United is inevitable rather than illuminating.
There will be some who see Ibrahimovic’s return as an unnecessary distraction to the beautiful football United have been playing so far this season, and largely during pre-season.
The iconic Swede could, however, prove to be the torch that lights the way to the 2017/18 Premier League title following the relative darkness of the barren years since United last lifted the title they are the record holders of.
But he will have to do so as part of the supporting cast, rather than the leading man role he craves and has played so often throughout his career.
He can make an impact but he has to fall in line as a foot soldier. He cannot be allowed as much control over the starting 11 as he was afforded last season.
As prolific as he was and as much value as his experience at the elite level offers, in spite of his advancing years, United were far too static up front in 2016/17 with the big Swede in the side.
He was superb in scoring 28 goals in 46 appearances in all competitions. But United’s approach play was too often ineffective, ponderous and dull with Ibrahimovic as the focal point.
Too many teams became difficult to break down with defences tightly packed to guard the big number nine, who the play inevitably always went through – 15 draw hampering any hopes United had of the title and even the top four.
Only Ander Herrera (28), Antonio Valencia (32), Paul Pogba (24) and David De Gea (26) played more minutes than the 35-year-old.
Only Herrera, De Gea and Pogba played more games – and he missed 10 through injury after his season was ended by a knee ligament injury in the first leg of the Europa League quarter-final tie against Anderlecht.
His presence in the current team, while welcome, could also prove to be the antithesis to the direction in which the team are going – a return to the fast-paced, swashbuckling, lethal style that has characterised United sides over the years.
The new Premier League season is two games old. Tougher tests than two 4-0 thrashings of West Ham and Swansea lie ahead. But there is a discernible swagger to United’s play that has not been seen for many years.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba, after bedding in campaigns, have begun brightly and will have key roles to play in any forthcoming success. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have also caught the eye and their frightening pace and trickery can destroy teams. Nemanja Matic, meanwhile, looks like he’s been in the side for years.
Romelu Lukaku is now the leading light instead of Ibrahimovic. And he must be allowed to shine.
Ibrahimovic’s return evokes memories of when compatriot Henrik Larsson was loaned to United in January 2007. Then 36, Larsson had a brief but memorable stay at Old Trafford, scoring three goals in 13 appearances, earning himself a Premier League winners’ medal after returning to Helsingborg in March.
Ibrahimovic can have a similar impact, but he must be willing to sacrifice himself if he wants to add a league title in a fifth different country to his collection.
So, while United fans live in the moment, Jose Mourinho must think long term. And if he is to succeed in maintaining his impressive record of winning league championships in his second season at every club he has managed, re-acquiring a player of Ibrahimovic’s ilk could prove to be a masterstroke.
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