The expected marquee signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to complement ruthless manager Jose Mourinho will be the latest statement of intent from a Manchester United hierarchy desperate to preserve the club’s endangered standing as a commercial and competitive powerhouse.
Due to turn 35 in October, Ibrahimovic, when he passes a medical and puts pen to paper, is unlikely to have the impact of Eric Cantona, the maverick who joined as a 26-year-old and propelled the team to their first Premier League title, setting the club on the path to two decades of domestic dominance.
But the parallels are unmistakable. The charismatic forward, who retired from international football after Sweden’s group-stage exit from Euro 2016 last week, remains a box-office draw not seen at Old Trafford since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure for Real Madrid in 2009.
5 – Goals in Top 5 Leagues in last four seasons
Ronaldo – 148
Messi – 143
Ibrahimovic – 113
Suarez – 110
Lewandowski – 91
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 30, 2016
Others with the potential to single-handedly win matches and sell shirts – Dimitar Berbatov, Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao – have failed, on and off the pitch, to underpin United’s commercial and sporting juggernaut.
Of the other candidates, Carlos Tevez and, criminally, Paul Pogba were allowed to leave, while familiarity has bred contempt for the United faithful – and potential converts in developing markets – as far as Ronaldo contemporary and Alex Ferguson survivor Wayne Rooney is concerned.
Robin van Persie temporarily served the purpose, but the Dutchman, whose appeal had as much to do with his defection from Arsenal as any real star quality, was never in the requisite stratosphere of fame to make the required impact.
With those failures in mind, the appointment of Mourinho and impending capture of Ibrahimovic represents the culmination of United’s transformation from the shoe-string conservatism practised late in Ferguson’s tenure, a consequence initially of restrictions imposed by the Glazer family’s early ownership model and then sustained by the prudence of the Scot in his managerial dotage, to largesse worthy of continental financial powerhouses Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid.
A failure to invest sufficiently in the playing squad, the lack of an effective strategy for the future and poor recruitment during the early years of this decade has eroded United’s domestic pre-eminence to the unthinkable point where the Red Devils are by no means guaranteed Champions League qualification, let alone certain to mount the perennial title challenge they took for granted for 20 years from 1993 onwards.
Louis van Gaal’s underwhelming second season saw the team fail to seize the unique chance presented to them by the simultaneously weak campaigns produced at Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City.
Now, 2016-17 looms as potentially one of the most competitive in Premier League history, with Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte arriving at the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge respectively, while Jurgen Klopp will expect far more from his first full campaign at Anfield.
The need to match the ambitious appointments of their rivals had already prompted United’s decision-makers to compromise their values and shelve their qualms over character to bring in Mourinho, divisive and dominant in equal measure.
Handing Ibrahimovic his first taste of English club football in the twilight of his career is also a big gamble and it will not be a cheap experiment, irrespective of the length of his contract.
The former Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain star is certain to be among United’s highest earners, potentially restricting their options elsewhere in the transfer market.
And should he prove a Premier League flop, it will be difficult for Mourinho to distance himself from the dud, owing to their close relationship at Inter and shared mutual antipathy for new City coach Guardiola, something that is certain to be exploited ahead of the first Manchester derby of the season on September 10.
However, if Ibrahimovic is still capable of weaving the magic that has seen him win league titles in nine of the last 10 seasons, he could – with ruthless winner Mourinho on the sidelines – transform the unfulfilled potential of a United attack containing Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay into a genuine force to be reckoned with.
— OptaJean (@OptaJean) June 30, 2016
Reinforcements will be required elsewhere and questions remain about the Swede’s capacity to adapt to the rough and tumble of the Premier League so late in his career.
But United, after years of neglect and bungling, appear to have finally taken decisive action in an attempt to halt their slide toward mediocrity.
And with one of the 21st century’s most inventive and unpredictable players leading the charge, next season could yet prove to be a thrilling ride for United fans as the club collectively Dares to Zlatan.
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