No striker at Manchester United has scored 30 goals in a single season since Robin Van Persie in 2013.
But Zlatan Ibrahimovic looks likely to finally pass that mark this season, and he’ll deserve all the credit he gets.
The never-ageing Swede has scored 28 goals so far, and most of them have been crucial goals, like the two goals against Southampton in the Football League Cup final. He might be 35, but he’s making his younger teammates look ancient.
Even so, his conversion rate is low. His movement slows down most United attacks. Even his mere presence limits chances that would have been available to young talent – for example, whenever he plays, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, two of Europe’s most exciting talents, are restricted to the wings or the bench.
The ‘Lion’, as he might prefer to call himself, is turning 36 soon, and I cannot bet against him being fit enough to play for five more years – but I can bet against him being as productive as he is at the moment.
Football is changing with the plentiful young talent flowing into England year in and year out – we now have defenders who are as fast as strikers – and that will count against him.
I remember a good number of players being too productive at the later stages of their carriers, but this productivity has always been followed by complete breakdown. For example, John Terry was exceptional in the Chelsea title-winning team of 2015, but age caught up with him one season later. Rio Ferdinand in 2013 is another example, as are Per Mertesacker, Diego Forlan, Ronaldo – they all slowed a year after their most productive seasons.
You sign finished products, not prospects, when chasing a specific target, like Sir Alex Ferguson did in his capture of Robin Van Persie at the start of 2012-13 season, which is what it looks like Jose Mourinho did in bringing the Swede to Old Trafford – he needed a born winner who would reinstate lost morale and courage to the dressing room. Zlatan has done this.
But you can’t build a team around a 35-year-old, and we all know what comes with old age in football.
Teams are built around young stars approaching their prime who still find the game more than exciting and are ready to give their all for their team.
If Mourinho wants to win trophies next season, he should look to Martial and Rashford or even new signings – Romelu Lukaku, Antoine Griezmann or Alvaro Morata could be the future of Manchester United.
If Zlatan is to stay, let it be him who chooses to do so – let’s not have the club begging him to hang around.