He may have been playing to the gallery by living up to his egotistical, self-centred reputation, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a point with his response when asked whether he felt Manchester United were on the verge of “something special” following their dramatic EFL Cup Final victory over Southampton.
“I came,” Ibrahimovic said. “That is special.”
The Swedish centre-forward’s two goals in United’s 3-2 win at Wembley, one of the classic finals since the stadium reopened in 2007, took his tally for the season to an incredible 26 in 38 appearances since his free transfer arrival from Paris Saint-Germain last summer.
His first was a stunning free-kick from 30 yards but his second, an unstoppable 86th minute header from Ander Herrera’s cross, won the cup for Jose Mourinho’s team after they had been out-played and out-fought by Claude Puel’s Saints. United were hugely fortunate to win their second major trophy in less than 12 months following last season’s FA Cup triumph, but they seem to get lucky quite often with Zlatan around.
It’s both a positive and a negative for Mourinho.
The 35-year-old striker simply makes things happen. He inspires those around him to summon up energy and inspiration when the cause seems lost and he leads from the front, literally and metaphorically, by dragging United over the line. They would have surely lost Sunday’s final to Southampton, who were inspired by the two goals of Italian forward Manolo Gabbiadini, and they would arguably be out of the running for Champions League qualification if they did not have Zlatan in their team.
“Honestly, Ibrahimovic won the game for us because he was outstanding,” Mourinho said. “In a match where the opponent was better than us for long periods — they deserved to go to extra time — he made the difference and he gave us the cup.”
Mourinho also made clear that he and the club hope he stays much longer. “I never beg, but if needed, maybe United fans can go to his house and stay there all night.”
That United can call on Ibrahimovic to rescue them time and again is down to Mourinho’s wisdom in bringing the player to Old Trafford when many doubted his ability to deliver in the Premier League.
Ibrahimovic was poor during Sweden’s Euro 2016 campaign last summer and arrived in Manchester with many suspecting that PSG had offloaded him just as decline was setting in. But Ibrahimovic is anything but what he seems. On the pitch, he has confounded the sceptics and off it, those who work closely with him at Old Trafford have discovered that his real persona is one of a humble man, generous with his time and somebody who puts the team first and individual second.
As United and Mourinho left Wembley with the club’s 44th major trophy, a success that moves them level with Liverpool in terms of major trophies won by an English club, they would have been thankful for Ibrahimovic’s immense contribution on and off the pitch this season. Because the reality is that his goals and match-winning contributions have papered over the cracks that Mourinho still has yet to properly repair at Old Trafford.
It is when a team and its players are under the spotlight in an occasion like a major final that their strengths and weaknesses are exposed most glaringly. Can the players step up and perform when it matters most, when silverware is at stake, or do they fall short?
Ibrahimovic certainly stepped up and delivered, but many of his teammates did not and Mourinho’s pained demeanour at the end of the game suggested that United’s performance merely confirmed to him what he already knew: certain players in his current squad aren’t good enough to continue on the path he’s set out for his team.
Defensively, United were given too many problems by Southampton. Nathan Redmond’s pace and movement was one issue but neither Chris Smalling nor Eric Bailly were able to keep Gabbiadini quiet either. As the senior man at the back, Smalling too often allows his poor footwork to get him into trouble. He also struggles to mark centre-forwards of presence in the penalty area and Gabbiadini’s two goals highlighted Smalling’s deficiencies.
At 27, the England defender has so far been unable to iron out his flaws and Mourinho will want a more commanding centre-half who is comfortable on the ball. His centre-park partner at Wembley, Bailly, has promise but Smalling is running out of time as a United player unless he can become the defender Mourinho needs him to be.
In midfield, Pogba showed that he is still learning the game and struggling to stamp his identity on this United team. Pogba is 24 on Mar. 15: anything but a raw youngster. His £89 million world record transfer fee ensures he will be subjected to greater scrutiny than most but equally, he needs to do more to live up to the hype.
Pogba will be given the time to do so, of course, but Mourinho may need to recruit another midfielder to bring the best out of the Frenchman. Michael Carrick, who turns 36 in July, cannot be expected to stick around forever to guide Pogba until he becomes the kingpin in midfield.
Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard have both delivered important performances and goals for United — Lingard extended his goalscoring run at Wembley with United’s second goal of the game — but neither saw out the 90 minutes after failing to make their mark. Both are good enough in the Premier League but neither fit the bill of an A-list player who will make the difference in the Champions League or the race for a title.
There’s a potential issue in attack, too. Take away Ibrahimovic’s goals up front and United cannot point to another player who has hit double-figures in terms of goals this season. Mata (nine) is the second-highest goalscorer while Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have just seven apiece.
Having won major trophies at Chelsea with Frank Lampard regularly scoring 20 goals a season from midfield to supplement those of Didier Drogba, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Hernan Crespo, Mourinho knows that you cannot build a winning team if only one man is able to score when the heat is on. But Ibrahimovic has provided an incredibly successful sticking plaster for United this season by exceeding the expectations of seemingly everybody but himself and Mourinho.
And, on Sunday, he even carried United over the line to win a trophy.
Whether he can repeat his magic to take United to glory in the FA Cup and Europa League this season is another matter, but you can never say never with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. At some point, though, those around him will need to start showing they can also come to the party when it matters most.