Manchester United’s graveyard of Potential

There are few things more exciting than watching a youngster showcase sky-high potential. Take Monaco’s latest prodigy, Kylian Mbappé, who injected fresh interest into the Champions League last season – a competition that has become stale in recent years given the domination of the continent’s biggest clubs, including Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus. Young players bring unpredictability and excitement. Few outside France knew of the Frenchman’s talent before he burst onto the scene at the turn of the year. They know him now.

Opposition teams could not plan for Mbappé as they had little prior knowledge. First, Mbappé showcased his exquisite finishing. Then came the turn of pace. As Mbappé’s confidence grew he begin to demonstrate those brilliant touches of skill that took everyone by surprise. The youngster may have been perceived as a poacher, but by the end of the season he was viewed as one of the most complete footballers in the competition, at the tender age of 18.

Manchester United, of course, is no stranger to blooding talented youngsters. The world-renown Class of 92 stands apart as one of the most extraordinary narratives in modern football. Never before – and given football’s globalization probably never again – had six footballers matured together to help their boyhood club win the ultimate prize: a Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup treble in 1999. For that story alone, United commands an aura of respect for giving youth a chance.

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Nostalgia is beautiful. Unfortunately, the club hasn’t been able to replicate that since the class of 92. While the academy continues to produce talent, the club has failed to build on young promise in recent years. There is no longer a regular stream of players making it to the first team. Just two weeks back, United announced that Josh Harrop will be joining Preston North End when his contract expires at the end of the month. Harrop leaves having scored a beautiful solo goal versus Crystal Palace on his club debut on the last day of the season, but his chances of making the first team permanently are limited.

Perhaps, more pointedly, Adnan Januzaj is off to Real Sociedad in an attempt to relight his career after years of stalled progress. The Belgian youngster burst onto the scene as one of the only bright spots in David Moyes’ disastrous season at the club. Louis van Gaal distrusted the mercurial winger and then Borussia Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel expressed public disappointment with the player’s attitude and sent him back to Manchester. It should have been the perfect opportunity to develop at one of the world’s most youth-friendly clubs. Frustration, anger, and a touch of sadness describe the emotions felt about a player who many believe holds the natural ability to reach the top. It just won’t be at United.

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The broader picture is not positive either. Januzaj is far from alone as a promising youngster that has failed to make it at United. The list of highly talented players to have left with talent unfulfilled is too long for a club that has lacked exceptional quality since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. United’s results declined only after Ferguson’s retirement, but the youthful talent pool had dried up long before the Scot called it a day. In the past five years alone, Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba, Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly, Tyler Blackett, and Paddy McNair each offered United fans a glimpse of talent, yet all left with a sense of potential unfulfilled. Even youthful acquisitions such as Wilfried Zaha, Nick Powell and Memphis Depay departed having failed to turn talent into performances.

This is not all on the club, of course. Many factors play into development and progress of talent, many of which are out of United’s control. Morrison’s personal issues, for example, made it seemingly impossible for the player to dedicate the required focus on his career. Pogba has proven to be Ferguson’s most costly misjudgement, and with hindsight, maybe the hype afforded to Macheda, Cleverly, Welbeck, Blackett and McNair was unjustified.

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Yet, there is also a sense that with the right coaching at least some of these players could have progressed to reach the standards they were once touted to possess. Zaha, for example, was not afforded the chance to showcase his mercurial talents despite the £15 million fee. United fans might look at the player’s outstanding season at Crystal Palace as an opportunity missed. Powell and Depay were each accused of demonstrating a poor attitude, although if the former is able to focus and the latter carries on his good form for Lyon, United may rue not holding a little more patience.

The result is a graveyard of youthful potential. There are too many ‘what ifs’ – players discarded to the wind when the excitement of youth was exactly what the club needed. Today, supporters are right to be concern that youngsters such as Marcus Rashford and Antony Martial might not fulfil their potential at the club. Each enjoyed superb seasons under Van Gaal, but neither truly built on those foundations during Jose Mourinho’s first campaign at the club. The duo enjoyed ample game time last season, but there is a sense that Mourinho’s more conservative tactics have stunted the pair’s growth. Potential is not yet lost, but neither enjoyed featuring on the left wing and being asked to perform defensive duties even if it is beneficial to the team. If Mourinho captures Alvaro Morata, neither will appear at number nine much next season either.

 

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In more defensive areas, Mourinho can choose from a plethora of talented youngsters waiting for a chance. Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Axel Tuanzebe, Luke Shaw, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Guillermo Varela have each offered assured performances for the senior team. Fosu-Mensah looks like the beefy, all-action defensive midfielder that the team has lacked in recent years, while Tuanzebe epitomised composure when he was thrown into Mourinho’s first team plans towards the end of the season. Shaw is a complicated case, but his ability is unquestionable. Shaw will hope that Mourinho places more trust in the former Southampton player, although that trust may only come with the hard work his manager demands.

Borthwick-Jackson and Varela looked like capable attacking full-backs under van Gaal’s tutelage, although with so many options in front of them it seems unlikely that either will make the senior squad in the coming season. Departure is likely.

Mourinho has much to do if he is to dispel the assumption that he fails to give youth a chance. Last season Rashford, Martial, Shaw, Tuanzebe, and Fosu-Mensah enjoyed time in the first team. Mourinho offered more minutes to teenagers than any other manager in the Premier League, albeit a stat skewed by Rashford’s impact. Yet, none is guaranteed first choice for the coming campaign.

The sense that Mourinho’s conservative ideology hinders talented youngsters persists. Few will argue that the Portuguese prefers the fickle world of potential – one that can be full of surprises, good and bad – to proven talent and experience.

Still, the current crop of youngsters at United is more exciting than in recent years. Now the club and manager needs to find the right environment to stimulate that talent.

 

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Happy birthday Pretty boy : David Beckham

‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’

I am no fan of Shakespeare, I couldn’t care less about the contextual values of his time and totally dislike his Elizabethan English. But if their were to be something I totally agree with,  it’d have to be the above quote.

There is a popular story narrated by former United Kingdom Prime minister, Tony Blair in an interview. He said he happened to visit a small island in Japan and people couldn’t recognise him or United Kingdom. Children couldn’t even pronounce his name correctly. Out of desperation he uttered the name “David Beckham” and immediately stuck common chord with those kids. Probably, the story may be a bit exaggerated but there is no denying the fact what David Beckham had on football.

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Beckham has played for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, while also acting as a sporting ambassador for his country, playing a key role in London winning the race to host the 2012 Olympic Games. He was born and raised in East London, but began his career at Manchester United at the age of 14, winning the Champions League in 1999, as well as the Premier League six times and the FA Cup twice. After winning the French title with PSG, Beckham has won 19 trophies – 10 of them league titles – in a playing career spanning 20 years, and is the only English player to win championships in four different countries.

Stylish, flamboyant and a free-kick master. A wonderful range of passing, a quick decision maker, creative, patient and composed. Such superlatives could be about any number of brilliant players throughout football’s history. Had Beckham been born Italian, he would undoubtedly have been played centrally.

Such is David Beckham’s godlike status these days – sporting ambassador, style guru, model father, stoic asthma-sufferer – it’s easy to forget how unpopular he was at the start of the decade. England supporters still hadn’t forgiven him for the petulance that earned him a red card against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup finals (and which led to his effigy being burned outside a London pub).

You are just 23 and the entire country says “ You cost us the World cup.” David Beckham famously said :

‘I have nightmares about France 98. It was humiliating. It will always be with me.’

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Probably, it was in his genes or the club he played for at that time when he decided to take the free kick against Greece.  The stage was Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home ground and the lead actor was David Beckham. From the boy who costed the world cup to the captain of the country taking a free kick to help England qualify for the world cup. Think of the pressure, the thoughts which would have gone in his head.

“ What would happen if I miss this? ”

Everyone knew who would take it. And everyone knew what he would try to do The Greeks should have known, too, but they put only four men in the wall, and Beckham swung the ball round them into the top corner. The draw was enough to take England to the finals in Japan, where Beckham exorcised the demons of four years earlier by scoring the only goal (a dubiously awarded penalty) in the defeat of Argentina. But David Beckham did what he did for Manchester United for years. He took the challenge and delivered one of the most iconic free kicks in the history of football.   

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But Beckham has something few footballers possess: beautiful looks, he’s an art-object in his own right. Forget the frantic hairstyles (skinhead, Mohican, ponytail, kiss-curl, spiky, slicked back, bleached, etc) and the wretched tattoos. Forget the sarong and the experiments with pink nail varnish. However silly the get-up, his good looks can’t be disguised: brown eyes, a winning smile and (as seen in underwear ads as well as the shirt-exchanges at the end of games) a terrific body. Sam Taylor-Wood recognised it when she made a film of him sleeping. Peter Blake, Alison Jackson and Antony Gormley have all produced art-works inspired by him. And Tracey Emin exhibited a letter she sent him, along with a photo of herself half-naked on a bed – the sort of come-on Posh must spend half her life fending off.

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Some thought the obsession with fashion and celebrity would be the ruin of Beckham, much as alcohol destroyed George Best. But Beckham had been into clothes from an early age. At the age of six, for a family wedding, he delighted in choosing his pageboy outfit – maroon knickerbockers, white stockings, frilly shirt, ballet shoes (“I’d have worn it to school if they’d let me”). He is famously fastidious, too, once refusing to give a fellow player a lift after training in case he scuffed the leather seats of the new Becksmobile. For a footballer to be a gay icon transgresses the laws of beery machismo, but Beckham has pulled it off.

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Some fans would prefer him to be tougher: had his dodgy metatarsal not made him shirk a Roberto Carlos tackle in Japan in 2002, allowing Brazil to sweep downfield and equalise, might England have gone on to win the match and the tournament? All three World Cups Beckham has played in have ended in disappointment and “what ifs?” But the miracle is that he’s survived to take part in a fourth. He may be the modern George Best for Manchester United minus the drinking habit. Every woman wanted him and every man wanted to be like him. I grew up watching Manchester United day in and day out and David Beckham was the reason why I wanted to sport a “spiked hair style”.

But Beckham was more than a player. He was — and will remain, even in retirement — a brand. The planet has enough replica Beckham jerseys — in England white, United red, Madrid blue and Galaxy gold — to clothe a small nation.

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The problem many people who love to hate Beckham encounter is that as an individual he is hard to dislike. He is not a bon viveur full of witty put-downs when he faces the press – that is Steven Gerrard’s job – but Beckham is polite, mild and, even now, sometimes stumbles over his words. They like the fact that he is rich, famous and lives in Beverly Hills but, like them, makes a regular pilgrimage to the stadium by the North Circular in the vain hope that one day the England team will get their act together.

Somehow, against all the odds, this hyper-celebrity with his improbably named children and Hollywood actors for friends has become a man of the people. He has done so because the older and less effective a footballer he has become, the more people have come to appreciate the way that he has hung on tenaciously to what is important to him – his place in the England team. And, of course, every now and then he can still hit the kind of cross or free-kick that tells people that, technically, he is still an excellent footballer.

There were some utterly absurd moments in his England career which, looking back upon, it is hard to believe he was allowed to get away with. His decision to have a traditional African “corn-row” plait hairstyle for England’s 2003 friendly in South Africa – when he met with Nelson Mandela – was one.

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We shouldn’t really be surprised that Becks is a man capable of sleight of hand when it comes to handling his public image. Just think what he’s pulled off in the two decades since he became globally famous. It’s stunning. In this commitment, Beckham, too, has form. This is the boy who, without the innate talent of a Messi or a Ronaldo, would spend three hours at practice after everyone had gone home, to ensure he could cross the ball with the best. His great heights were undoubtedly built on early foundations of grit, focus and dedication.

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The biggest lesson he taught to fellow footballers was rightly said by Zlatan Ibrahimovic :

“As a footballer it is important to be yourself and live your life – not to live in a bubble, not enjoying your life. That is what I admire about Beckham. The attention that follows him, is not easy to live out your life. But he does it. I even told him that I admired him because he brings his children to surfing, to the park. I felt sometimes I would stay at home, because I want to be left alone. But after I saw him, he brought me off the couch and he motivated me to take my family out and do these things. If he can do it, then me, someone with 10% of his attention, can do it.”

Happy birthday David Beckham. Thank you for making my childhood wonderful with those killer free kicks and the unforgettable Samurai advertisement. The supporters at Wembley cannot all be wrong. They feel a connection with him that transcends the usual suspicion of modern-day millionaire footballers. 

 

Mourinho’s Experimentation with 3-4-3

Antonio Conte’s decision to adopt the 3-4-3 formation at Chelsea has been influential in the narrative of the Premier League season. While Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur have stumbled over different formations and team selections, Conte has persisted with the shape that brought him so much success with Juventus and the Italian national team. Chelsea’s balance of defensive solidity, work ethic in midfield, and mercurial attacking talents have pushed the Londoners to within touching distance of the title.

Indeed, Conte’s tactical revolution is taking the English league by storm, with various opponents attempting to mimic Chelsea’s success. Only Spurs have fully implemented the formation to a similarly devastating effect, while Crystal Palace, Watford and City have all experimented. Palace and Watford lack the quality to succeed, while Pep Guardiola’s side is probably short of the right players for the roles envisioned.

José Mourinho has also tinkered with the 3-4-3 in recent weeks, despite being accused of losing touch with modern football. The trial has offered mixed results. Mourinho deployed a back three in the first leg of United’s Europa League Round of 16 fixture with Rostov in Russia. The fixture was played on a surface that would not look out of place in the Sunday Leagues, and the Reds struggled to create any kind of tempo.

United also shifted to a back three against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup. It was billed as a litmus test for Mourinho’s newfound formation, and the contest looked even until Ander Herrera’s dismissal. Having lost a man against the league leaders, United parked the bus and played a back six for the remainder of the game.

The final outing of the system to date was in United’s Europa League home leg against Rostov. With a lower-quality opposition at Old Trafford, many observers expected Mourinho to roll out United’s full offensive capability. The visitors, however, were well organised and subdued much of United’s attacking threat until Juan Mata scored the only goal of the game 20 minutes from time.

United reverted to a more familiar system against Middlesbrough at the weekend, but the brief experiment with three at the back has offered some food for thought.

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Squad depth in defensive positions

Simplistically, a back three offers more defensive options than with a regulation back four. The extra centre back allows the full-backs take up higher positions on the pitch, although the wide players still perform defensive roles for the team. This plays to United’s advantage, with the Reds enjoying squad depth at centre back.

There have been times this season when the form of Eric Bailly, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling has offered the manager a selection headache, while Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah are youthful options on the periphery. Bailly has enjoyed a strong début campaign, while Jones and Rojo have, at times, fashioned a strong partnership. Although Smalling’s form has fluctuated, Daley Blind illustrated during the 2014 World Cup that, despite lacking pace, he is comfortable playing in a three-back.

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Mourinho also boasts good options at wing-back, with players possessing the necessary industry and pace to perform in the role.  This season Spurs’ Kyle Walker and Danny Rose and Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso have demonstrated the importance of wing-backs in the system. United could mirror the London clubs in that department, with Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw potentially two of the finest in the Premier League. With Blind’s quality of delivery and Ashley Young’s relative experience as an attacking full-back, United has some strength in depth.

Variety in forward positions

Conte prefers trickery and pace in wide forward positions, with Eden Hazard and one of Pedro or Willian, supporting lone striker Diego Costa. Over at Spurs Mauricio Pochettino prefers one of his wide forwards, normally Christian Eriksen, to have creative license while the other, Dele Alli, supports Harry Kane.

United could adopt either approach. With Zlatan Ibrahimović leading the line, Mourinho is able to draw on Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Juan Mata as wide playmakers in a 3-4-3 system, with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford providing a second-striker’s quality on the left. This system might allow Mourinho to switch fluidly between a dynamic front three and a more rigid two striker partnership, with a supporting midfielder. It opens up the possibility of Paul Pogba using his talents closer to the opposition’s goal

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Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring his side’s second goal of the game from the penalty spot alongside teammate Paul Pogba during the Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester.

Mourinho’s style

It is unfair to call the Portuguese manager a defensive coach, although Mourinho holds a natural preference for defensive solidity over attacking flair. There remains some truth in Mourinho’s assertion that he is upholding United’s attacking traditions. During United’s glory days in the late 90’s, Sir Alex Ferguson’s preferred style was based on defensive solidity and vertical passes, launching fast counter attacks, predominantly through the flying wingers.

The league leaders have adopted the 3-4-3 system for many of the same reasons, with the team able to defend deep and then look to hit the forward players quickly when possession is overturned. If the opposition is stretched, the three forwards can often mount a dangerous attack by themselves. If reinforcements are required, the overlapping full-backs can provide an overload in wide positions, particularly if the ball is switched quickly by one of Chelsea’s two central midfielders.

It’s a style of that applies to many of Mourinho’s best teams. The manager prefers taking fewer risks, while reaping the attacking rewards when executed correctly. The Portuguese focusses his coaching on the defensive aspects of football, while allowing his forward players freedom to use their own ingenuity and personality.

It was unsurprising that United’s only goal against Rostov at Old Trafford came when the Reds allowed the Russian side to retain possession. The home side seized the ball on the half way line and broke quickly against Rostov’s high line; a combination of quick passes between the front three ended when Ibrahimović teed up Mata with a smart back-heel for the Spaniard to tap home.

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Yet, for the majority of the game, United held possession in Rostov’s half and created few clear-cut chances. It offered an indication that the Reds may still be suffering a hangover from the Louis van Gaal era.

Pogba may struggle in 3-4-3

If the 3-4-3 system may superficially suit Mourinho’s personnel and style, it might not fit the team’s £89 million star player.  In the system two central midfielders shield three centre backs when the wing-backs have pushed up to create overloads. For example, at Spurs, Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembélé are used to great effect in the centre of the park, with both players capable of breaking up play and launching vertical passes. Chelsea deploy N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matić to perform a similar task, with Cesc Fabregas occasionally filling in for the Serbian against lesser teams.

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Pogba offers some defensive capabilities, but there is no doubt that the Frenchman is a far better player when given freedom to roam from box-to-box.  Against Chelsea, Pogba struggled to track runners from midfield as the game wore on and his positioning was far too deep to have any effect on United’s attacking play.

Ander Herrera has enjoyed a fine season, breaking up play and performing at a high level, yet the Spaniard cannot provide adequate defensive cover if the Frenchman is allowed to roam forward. It would leave Mourinho with three options if he wanted to persist with a three-man defence in the longer run, none of which are ideal. Firstly, Pogba can be given license to roam while United reign in the wing-backs. It might have the effect of making the side narrow and predictable. Pogba could be asked to perform a more defensive role alongside Herrera, but it would waste his myriad attacking talents. Finally, Pogba could be dropped for a more defensively astute midfielder – a solution palatable to nobody.

My Opinion : a dynamic system, but probably not for United

The system has proved a master stroke for Chelsea this season, and variations of the formation are quickly being adopted by some of the most exciting clubs across the continent, including Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona. The system offers flexibility in attack and defence, providing every player is an ideal fit for their given role. Mourinho has many of the players available to switch to the system permanently; the big sticking point is his star man. It is probably a defining factor the debate.

 

 

Zlatan Ibrahimović: The King who would be Legend

Zlatan Ibrahimovic had been the talk of the Premier League even before he kicked a ball. The name Zlatan means the golden one – and unlike most, has rung true to his own nature.

You can take the boy out of Rosengård but you cannot take Rosengård out of the boy.

These words are written at the entrance of the tunnel that leads through to the suburb of Rosengård in Malmö, Sweden, which for decades has been notorious for its crime and its poor economy; it was estimated in 2013 that over 80 percent of its population of 24,000 have immigrant backgrounds, and only 38 percent of the residents have a job.

The Liverpool Game

Zlatan Ibrahimović’s equalizer against Liverpool at Old Trafford is a breathtakingly good goal. His sense to take a couple of steps back into a tiny pocket of space thus giving Antonio Valencia a clear target for a cross demonstrated the instincts of a top-class and experienced striker. His header was placed, inch perfect high into the goal. Make no mistake it was not easy to execute. What shouldn’t get lost in the joy and relief of Ibrahimović’s leveler was his reaction to the goal.

There was no self-indulgent celebration here, just a few high-fives, a cry for Old Trafford to raise the roof, and a determination to restart the game in search of a winner. It was a pure display of the player’s winning mentality; no wonder Mourinho sought to recruit the Swede on taking the reins at Old Trafford.

Ibrahimović’s was not solely recruited to lead the line though. He is also at Old Trafford to add a measure of leadership missing for some time. By sheer force of personality, he’s emerged as the alpha male, supplementing both Wayne Rooney, and deputy captains Michael Carrick and Chris Smalling.

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United’s dependence on Zlatan, both for inspiration and goals, is dangerous, especially with Juan Mata and Paul Pogba being the next top scorers for United in the league, a full 10 goals behind the Swede. But when United needs inspiration the man Mourinho’s players seek is the talismanic number nine.

United legend Nemanja Vidić singled out the Ibrahimović as being central to Mourinho’s side – and the Serb should know a thing or two about leadership.

“First of all, his motivation at 35 years of age is incredible. I think he’s keeping himself fit. He’s professional. And his scoring is a great record. He is the one who has been driving Manchester United forward in recent weeks. Other players have to step up with the goals if they want to keep winning matches. He is playing really well this season.”

If anything Vidić is understating the striker’s maniacal desire to stay at the top. The Swede may not have many years of football left, but his influence could linger around Old Trafford long after he hangs up his boots. A modern day Eric Cantona to inspire the youthful hopefuls.

It’s important not to underestimate the importance of Ibrahimović’s mindset – a winning mentality sorely missed during the Louis van Gaal and David Moyes era. Indeed, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial identified the impact the Swede has already made at Old Trafford.

Zlatan has taken on the role of “godfather,” and was quick to defend Paul Pogba after the Frenchman’s poor performance against Liverpool. Criticism of Pogba was exacerbated by the launch of the player’s emoji across social media. Poor timing.

Much like Roy Keane became, in his peak, the embodiment of Sir Alex Ferguson on the pitch, so Ibrahimović’s is Mourinho’s ‘general’, the man tasked with dragging United back to the top of the tree. It takes a special sort of arrogance to make that happen, and in Mourinho and Zlatan the club has a duo who possess confidence in spades.

It may labour the point, but it is Zlatan’s attitude and work ethic, as well as his aura, that could be his biggest legacy at Old Trafford.

In a recent interview, he said :

“I prefer to win the Premier League than any individual ones because seeing me winning something and not my team-mates is not the way I want it, If I could be first in the Premier League and have five goals and the media attacking me, ‘he can’t do it in the Premier League’, I’d prefer to have it like that.”

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Ibrahimović may prefer to have it that way, but he’s not one to let his high standards slip and, by default, challenges those around him to keep up. True, there have been games where Ibrahimović has been relatively anonymous. He even suffered a six-match scoreless run, but he still has that rare gift of making a telling difference when inspiration is required. As my old man says “He has got a swagger which slays”

Cantona, United icon and self-appointed Commissioner of Football, gave his seal of approval to the Swede, dubbing Ibrahimović an heir, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek.

Behind the jest is a truth: that the Old Trafford throne finally has a worthy successor, one whose influence could linger long after he hangs up those golden boots.