Zlatan Ibrahimovic effect rubbing off on his United crew
Off the ball
Jose Mourinho smiled in the London Stadium tunnel on Monday evening and talked Marcus Rashford. Not for the first time, United's wunderkind came off the bench to light up a stodgy encounter, in this instance brilliantly assisting Juan Mata's opener.
As so often happens, Mourinho steered the conversation to the 'Zlatan effect', stating, "Zlatan is always surrounded by the kids. Maybe it makes him feel younger. Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Timothy Fosu-Mensah; they are always with him. Having Ibra for the next two years is fantastic for Marcus."
And indeed if one keeps a casual eye on photos of the Manchester United team going about their business; waiting for trains to London, walking to and from the team bus or hotel, Zlatan is often surrounded by his young posse. He enjoys the adulation and they love him.
More than that perhaps, Zlatan recognises the importance of a mentor. There was a time, the 2001/'02 season at Ajax, when it looked like his career might fizzle into mediocrity. He wasn't sleeping or eating properly. There was lots of racing around in cars. He lost weight, dropping down to a paltry 75kg. His new manager Ronald Koeman benched him for five straight games and sent him home from a training session. Zlatan recounts in his autobiography, Koeman yelling: "You're not into it. You're not giving your all. Go home".
Around that time, 19-year-old Zlatan was looking for a new agent. It would prove pivotal. Mino Raiola offered tough love.
Meeting at the Okura hotel for the first time, Raiola presented Zlatan with a set of statistics. "Christian Vieri: 27 matches, 24 goals. Filippo Inzaghi: 25 matches, 20 goals. David Trezeguet: 24 matches, 20 goals. And finally Zlatan Ibrahimovic 25 matches, 5 goals." Raiola asked. "You think I'm going to be able to sell you with statistics like that?"
It prompted an attitude change. In his own words, "I started driving around in the club's lame little Fiat Stilo and I put away my gold watch".
There was a second architect in the creation of Zlatan; Fabio Capello at Juventus. Capello transformed his new striker mentally and also physically, forcing him to partake in weight training for the first time. "Capello didn't just knock Ajax out of me, he made me into a guy who comes to a club and expects to win the league," Zlatan recalls.
The point is that Zlatan didn't breeze through his early years. He was a protégé with issues. His young crew are in good hands.