Saturday 19 August 2017

Ronnie Whelan: Zlatan is worth more than 10 Paul Pogbas to Manchester United

Read Ronnie Whelan in the Herald every Monday

Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic with the trophy
Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic with the trophy
Ronnie Whelan

Ronnie Whelan

WHAT a man is Zlatan. I’d tag him as the second coming of Eric Cantona at Old Trafford but he’s writing his own, unique chapter.

Alex Ferguson took a wild punt  on Cantona and reaped rewards for years afterwards and some are now wondering whether Ibrahimovic can spark the same run of success for Jose Mourinho.

I’m not so sure about that. On the evidence of this game alone, he has a long way to go to produce a team capable of doing that.

Cantona had great players around him when he was the King of Old Trafford but Ibrahimovic does not have anything like that quality to work with. He’s still ‘Zlatan the Great’ though and he’s more important to Mourinho and Manchester United than ten Paul Pogbas.

I know now that I’ve missed a great deal over the years, not following this man up close. Like everyone else I read the headlines and saw the goals but like everyone else, I saw him as a fitful genius with a wilful personality who had to be indulged.

As often as he was in the news for scoring goals, he was in the newspapers for falling out with managers, the most notable being Pep Guardiola at Barcelona.

But he kept winning things wherever he went. Steadily, he has accumulated an astonishing collection of medals.

Since Ireland drew Sweden in the Euro 2016 finals in France, I have had more reason to study him up close. In Paris on a steamy June day, he reinforced many of the stereotypes which have built up around him, barely shifting a leg during the game until one moment of magic won a point for his team.

So when it came to the start of the season and he had signed for United, I wondered how Mourinho could accommodate a man like Ibrahimovic in a dressing room and team dominated by Wayne Rooney.

I remember talking to some of the Swedish broadcasters before the game in the Stade de France and we were tossing around the possibility that he would sign for United.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba

They felt that the chance of a big personality clash was very real and that there was no more damaging player in a dressing room if he didn’t get his way, didn’t get star billing as the main man.

There was a lot missing from that assessment, I know that now, and the substance of the man was plainly visible in a wonderful little cameo when United were being presented with a League Cup they had no right to win.

Zlatan followed Rooney up the steps and was fifth or sixth in line to lift the trophy. He should have been first but he hung back, comfortably modest and in among young players doing what he had been doing all through the game; encouraging, praising  and leading.

He showed class in that moment and the kind of leadership which has been missing from this team for three years.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Zlatan is far more important to United than even Mourinho. Hand on heart, I can’t see any real improvement from Louis van Gaal’s time.

Pogba was a disgrace yesterday, strolling around the pitch while Southampton’s brighter and altogether more effective midfielders left him for dead. Mourinho paid an enormous fee for Pogba and the jury is very much out on that decision but he paid nothing at all for Ibrahimovic, apart from a very hefty salary, and deserves credit for that call.

Mourinho knew that he would need players with great mental fortitude and strong character to make a difference to a group of players which often looked rudderless under Van Gaal.

There were moments just a few months ago when Mourinho’s United looked just as bad and at a time when Ibrahimovic had a brief lean spell.

But Mourinho knew his man better than anyone else and over the last two months all the things that make him great have bubbled to the surface.

Back in November, Mourinho claimed that Zlatan would be at Old Trafford for another season.

However, the deal is apparently not yet done, so he should waste no time in adding however many bonus clauses are needed to get it over the line.

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