Wednesday 26 July 2017

Ibrahimovic now league's greatest free transfer

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has proven to be a remarkable influence on Manchester United this season Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has proven to be a remarkable influence on Manchester United this season Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Jason Burt

It is still remarkable to think that around this time last year, when it became apparent that Paris St-Germain were not intending to offer Zlatan Ibrahimovic a new contract, he turned down a tax-free €70m-a-year to play in China.

Ibrahimovic did not want to go to China - where the authorities planned to make him the 'face' of the Chinese Super League - partly because his wife, Helena, said she preferred to stay in Europe or go to the United States, if they were to leave Paris. But Ibrahimovic also had unfinished business.

Of course it was in his nature to let it be known the Chinese wanted to make him the highest-paid player in the world by some distance - the proposed salary was almost double the €700,000 a week that Shanghai Shenhua are paying Carlos Tevez, who is regarded as the best-remunerated footballer on the planet after his recent move.

But the offer was genuine. It was the talk of PSG, who had reasoned that, with Ibrahimovic then 34 after four years in Paris, it was time to move him on. The French club will have felt a shot of vindication in their 4-0 demolition of Barcelona in the Champions League last week.

The logic is that some of PSG's players, especially younger ones such as Marco Verratti as well as older figures like Edinson Cavani, have been given the room to flourish post-Zlatan. The side needed to develop without the talisman who insisted that there was an 'I' in team and took home a pay cheque to reflect that.

It was a justifiable argument to claim that he was too dominant within the team and that PSG would not have demolished Barca so thrillingly with him.

Indeed, some in Paris are surprised at how Ibrahimovic has performed in the Premier League since his move to Manchester United. There was an expectation that the Swede would simply stand in the centre circle and point at his team-mates, as if directing traffic, and that his body was no longer able to run and his mind had turned too stubborn.

Instead, Ibrahimovic's contribution has been extraordinary. He is arguably already the most successful 'free' signing in Premier League history.

There was the obvious expectation that Ibrahimovic would restore some of United's swagger, would raise their profile even further, but he has gone way beyond those kind of brand/advertising concerns and, having won leagues in Holland, Italy, Spain and France, is showing a remarkable appetite to prove himself once more.

That shows amazing desire and belief; to push himself in the league that is regarded around Europe as the most punishing physically and to do so amid the unrelenting, white-heat attention placed on United under new manager Jose Mourinho.

And he has succeeded. Ibrahimovic has transferred his £300,000-a-week wages (or thereabouts) from PSG to United - in typical Zlatan fashion, his initial demands at Old Trafford were for "300,000 a week", without taking into account the conversation rate from euros to sterling which meant he was given a wage-increase - and he has been able to make it appear money reasonably well spent.

The volume of goals is there, as is their importance. He has now scored 24 this season and 18 in his past 20 matches, which followed a run of just one in 11 games, proving that he has adjusted to his new league.

His goal against Blackburn in the FA Cup was his seventh match-winning strike. There have been winning goals in the league against Southampton, Crystal Palace, Swansea and West Brom and equalisers against West Ham, Liverpool and Everton. You could argue that, without Ibrahimovic, United would be 11 points worse off - and only Chelsea's Diego Costa can match that total for his club.

Almost as impressive as the goals, as statistics from Opta show, is the fact that no Premier League player has featured more often this season in all competitions than Ibrahimovic, who has been involved in 36 matches - the same as Southampton's Nathan Redmond, who is 22 and has played 1,963 minutes in the Premier League as opposed to Ibrahimovic's 2,160.

When it comes to strikers, Ibrahimovic has played 267 more league minutes than Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez, 500 more than Liverpool's Roberto Firmino - who manager Jurgen Klopp has referred to as a "machine" - and 653 more than Sunderland's Jermain Defoe, who is 12 months younger than him.

Ibrahimovic made his debut in the last century, first featuring for Malmo in 1999, which, to give it some context, was three years before Wayne Rooney, now 31, first played for Everton. Ibrahimovic has been at the club for just seven months, compared to Rooney's 13 years, yet it is clear which striker the club belongs to now.

The club have offered him a 12-month contract extension, negotiated last summer. It would be a huge surprise if he did not trigger it.

Telegraph.co.uk

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