Saturday 22 July 2017

Stephen Hunt: People compare Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Eric Cantona - but he's more like Roy Keane

Ibrahimovic is not just a great goalscorer: he is a leader, a fighter and a proper team player

Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Photo: Getty Images
Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Photo: Getty Images
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

When Zlatan Ibrahimovic signed for Manchester United on a free transfer in the summer, I was not convinced he would live up to the hype and compete at the highest level every week in the Premier League. The whole 'call me Zlatan' thing never sat comfortably with me.

Boy, was I wrong. He has come to the Premier League to prove a point and he looks to me like he has been saving this one up, and wanted to prove to the doubters in England that he is the genuine article. He reads things; he knows some of the English media had written him off because he couldn't score against English clubs for a while. Until that famous overhead kick, that is. He has obviously enjoyed proving people wrong and showing what he's all about.

Ibrahimovic gives belief to everyone around him in a young United side because he believes in himself, no matter what. So even when the team has not been playing well, or going through a sticky patch in games, he has still oozed the same confidence, calmness and, most importantly, that desire to win.

He still wants to drive his team-mates and lead from the front. When he signed, I wasn't sure he could handle the physical challenge of the Premier League. He absolutely loves it.

He actually likes hurting centre-backs. He does it within the rules, of course, but just lets them know from the off that he's there and up for a battle. First ball in the air. Bang. This is what you're up against.

When the ball is in his space, he makes clever movements, allowing other people to find the spaces he should be in. And when the ball is in his vicinity in the six-yard box - his own or the opposition's - he will fight to win it. It must be brilliant to play regular football with him.

He's 35, a year younger than me. And that drive is the reason he's still playing at the very highest level - and I'm not playing now. I didn't have the motivation to play while people didn't see a future for me. I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do after football about three years before I quit. I always knew I would take the enthusiasm I had as a player into my business life. So I was ready to stop trying to prove people wrong as a footballer.

Ibrahimovic still has that desire to prove himself, and I think Jose Mourinho has capitalised on it too and used it to keep him motivated and such a pivotal member of that team. He might not be the captain, but Ibrahimovic is their leader.

Looking at the impact he has made on Jose Mourinho's side and the role he played in winning the EFL Cup at Wembley last weekend, Ibrahimovic is the striker I would want above anyone else in my side at the moment.

In fact, if his form and influence continue and United stay in the running for more silverware, he must be among the leading contenders for the player of the season awards.

If I look at the best strikers in the Premier League, not one of them compares to Ibrahimovic and the presence he has on the pitch - and you can tell the impact that has throughout the whole team.

Alexis Sanchez, for example, might deserve a new contract with Arsenal, and I'd give him what he wants, but just by the way he is constantly throwing his arms in the air, playing for himself, I would not trust him.

Harry Kane might be close to the whole package as a striker, but he doesn't have the same presence. He's playing for his love of Tottenham, God love him, and doesn't have anything to prove to a crowd that adores him. And there's no real pressure because Spurs never win trophies.

Sergio Aguero and Diego Costa play under that pressure every week at Manchester City and Chelsea, respectively, and their goals help win trophies, but they also have other big names around them to relieve it. They've both had their difficulties with their managers this season and, as they are playing for new contracts, they are playing for themselves.

Comparisons have been made with United legend Eric Cantona, for many reasons, but I would say Ibrahimovic is the total opposite. Deep down, with Cantona, it was all 'look at me'. Ibrahimovic is a proper team player.

Ibrahimovic loves being Zlatan and he thrives on that aura he tries to give off. He loves being on the stage, living up to star billing. You might see him strutting and playing up to the cameras, laughing and joking.

Don't be fooled. He is one of the most serious footballers I've seen. I'd put him in the Roy Keane category of sheer drive, and lifting standards around him. He is more interested in his team than Cantona was, and making sure his team is winning.

When Jesse Lingard scored United's second goal last week, Ibrahimovic gave him a pat on the back and then started bawling and shouting and demanding concentration throughout the team, telling defenders how to defend, and then doing his own defending, leading by example. It was inspirational stuff.

Will he or won't he stay at Old Trafford? That is the big question. United will want him to stay, of course, but I'd believe his agent when he says they can have the pick of just about any club, anywhere.

Ibrahimovic knows he can name his price. But it won't just be about the money to him. He could become a real United legend. Like Cantona.

Wherever he goes, or if he stays, it will be to prove a point and to relish every minute of doing so.

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