OPINION: IBRA IS NEW KING OF OLD TRAFFORD
ManUtd.com’s Mark Froggatt blogs on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his talismanic start in red…
Zlatan Ibrahimovic may only be 54 days and three matches into his Manchester United career, yet the Swedish striker already has the club under his charismatic spell.
Supporters have immediately taken to the man from Malmo and early comparisons with the similarly talismanic Eric Cantona are gaining credence with every outing. The night is still young, of course, but it feels like Old Trafford has a new king who rules with swagger, confidence and moments of brilliance.
Fans of Cantona and Denis Law, the King of the Stretford End, will dispute that rather grandiose statement and there is admittedly no doubting that Ibrahimovic is inferior to both at this stage in his Reds career. But monarchy is ultimately about succession and the anointment of new rulers. Now is Zlatan's time.
My first encounter with the Swede arrived on 1 July, when his free transfer to United was confirmed. It began with a loud voice bellowing down the stairs at the Aon Training Complex, reverberating around the reception area to alert us reporters waiting patiently in the media room downstairs. It was the unmistakeable baritone of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, superstar striker, reporting for his interview.
"OK, I’m ready, let’s do it," he boomed in that recognisable Scandinavian accent as all six feet and four inches of him bounded into our lives, with a broad smile and steely eyes. For some unrealised reason, that opening statement stuck with me, perhaps as I was admittedly excited to meet the big man, but those words feel more pertinent almost three months later in light of his goal-laden start to life at United.
Ibra was evidently "ready" that day, but not just for mere media duties. He was braced for the bigger picture – English football, a new opportunity and the biggest challenge of his storied career. It was Zlatan’s time (no hashtag!) to shine and he’s since grasped it with both hands, scoring the goal that clinched the FA Community Shield at Wembley and three more strikes in his first two Premier League appearances.
His match-winning brace against Southampton also displayed his particular importance to the new United and highlighted his popularity among the Old Trafford hardcore, after his face was splashed across the covers of fanzines sold outside while his name rang out in a chant that is spreading like wildfire. Beneath the Friday night lights, Zlatan emerged as United's leading man at the Theatre of Dreams.
The fans aren’t the only ones who have been seduced by the new number nine, of course. The players have welcomed his personality and character as well, embracing his arrival and recognising a galvanising figure who could yet usher in a return to title success. It has worked both ways, too, with Zlatan admitting on Friday that he is enjoying his mentor role with United’s wide-eyed youngsters, 12 years after entering a Juventus dressing room littered with World Cup winners, European champions and Italian legends.
Ibrahimovic opened up on his new role while talking to this writer and Stuart Mathieson of the Manchester Evening News in Friday’s 'mixed zone', the area where the press can interview players. It was noteworthy because he had coincidentally appeared alongside 22-year-old Eric Bailly, his fellow summer signing whose English is limited at this moment. But instead of continuing to the players’ car park, the Ivorian chose to wait for 10 minutes as his new friend spoke to reporters, ironically about looking after his younger team-mates. Later, I realised this may have been an apprentice watching a master at work.
Luke Shaw, our 21-year-old left-back, has also talked enthusiastically about the Ibra effect and how story time has become a regular dressing room feature at United.
"He’s funny," Shaw told our own Gemma Thompson. "He’s one of the nicest guys as well and he has a lot of stories that we like to hear; the way he tells them is so funny! We get on really well with him. It’s not like he’s just sat with the youngsters, we all sit together and, honestly, listening to his stories is so good!"
With the supporters won over, and the players seemingly under his spell, Zlatan’s next task is to transform such infatuation into permanent adoration at the club and that certainly won’t be as swift a process.
But even if his debut season at United does not yield silverware, leaving his mission temporarily unfulfilled, at least it won’t be dull. Let’s just sit back, watch and enjoy the show. All hail king Ibra.
There is only one GOLDEN BOY