It’s not often the signing of a striker who scored 28 Premier League goals last season is met with anything but universal approval, but that was the case when Manchester United confirmed Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s return on Thursday.
Jose Mourinho’s side have made a blistering start to the new Premier League campaign, equaling a record that had stood for 110 years by scoring four goals or more in their first two games of a season.
Whether Ibrahimovic helps steer United to a 21st league title once he recovers from the knee injury which ruled him out of the tail end of last season, or he destabilises the equilibrium Mourinho appears to have achieved, remains to be seen, but his comeback poses as many questions as it does answers for several United stars…
Romelu Lukaku – Winner
The club’s record signing inherited Ibrahimovic’s old No.9 shirt and has picked up where the totemic Swede left off, scoring four times in his first three competitive starts.
A proven Premier League striker with his best years ahead of him, even at this early stage Lukaku is making a mockery of those who suggested his all-round game wasn’t up to the standard required of a Manchester United centre forward.
Ibrahimovic on Lukau
‘I’m happy he [Lukaku] came,’ Ibrahimovic told ESPN.
‘The team is much stronger than last season. We lost Rooney, who is a legend at the club, but we bought three new players.
With these three new players the team is stronger.
‘Signing Lukaku makes us even stronger because he has different qualities from me as a striker and from Rashford as a striker.
‘He’s a powerful guy and he will bring some extra quality in the game.’
His first touch might be several degrees shy of magnetic, but when you can compensate for that with a goal-a-game ratio it matters not. It is unlikely Lukaku will be able to maintain that strike rate over the course a full season, however, especially given his lack of European experience.
Having Ibrahimovic on board to share the burden should come as a blessed relief to Lukaku if he is to safely navigate what could ultimately be the first 60-game season of his career.
Marcus Rashford – Loser
The regression from ice cool teenage assassin to erratic winger took another step in the wrong direction at Swansea on Saturday, Rashford paying tribute to Danny Welbeck’s infamous miss against Bayern Munich with a replica effort, tamely chipping the ball into Lukasz Fabianski’s hands when clean through on goal.
For all his industry, speed and stealth, Rashford is undoubtedly at his best when deployed as a central striker but he is quickly becoming a victim of his own versatility.
Only two games into the new season and his place in the starting XI is coming under an increasing threat from the apparently rejuvenated Anthony Martial. The return of Ibrahimovic is likely to mean the already limited chances to play in his preferred position are only likely to lessen.
The Special One was often accused of having no Plan B last season, now he has the ultimate back-up option in Ibrahimovic.
If United are unable to prise the door open with their new counter-attacking style, they can blow it open with a human battering ram to call upon from the bench.
Mourinho was almost utterly reliant on the veteran Swede for goals last season, Juan Mata was United’s second top scorer in the Premier League with six, while Rashford, Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan managed just 13 between them.
A hallmark of Mourinho’s title-winning sides has been the way in which goals are shared about, particularly among the strikers.
In his first season at Chelsea both Didier Drogba and Eidur Gudjohnsen reached double figures, while Drogba again and Hernan Crespo did so the following year.
At Real Madrid, meanwhile, Gonazalo Higuan and Karim Benzema backed up Cristiano Ronaldo with 43 goals between them in their 2011/12 title-winning effort.
‘I came up against Zlatan Ibrahimovic when Northern Ireland played Sweden,’ said former Untied defender and Man City target Jonny Evans recalled earlier this year. ‘He left one on me. I cleared the ball and he left his studs up – I thought I would try and make the most of it. He came over and was all like: ‘Get up, bitch.’ I thought I’d better get up!
‘I remember playing against him for Manchester United. I just remember the strength he had – he could put one arm out and hold me off – and I could see the skill he had.’
Whatever the dubious nature of some of his methods, nobody is going to enjoy facing up to a supremely motivated Ibrahomovic ready to let out nearly nine months’ worth frustration.
Headers, free-kicks, long-range blasts and poacher’s tap-ins, Ibrahimovic scored the lot last season and few defenders found a way of getting the better of him.
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Given the generous defending on show during the early weeks of the new season, Ibra could well fill his boots again.