It probably deserved more of a fuss, but with one line on the Premier League’s retained and released list, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Manchester United career was over. For now, at least.
The Swedish forward will be a free agent when his contract expires on June 30. He has accepted an offer from the club to complete his recovery from a knee injury at the Carrington training complex, and, indeed, there remains a possibility he could re-sign once fit, but that’s a long shot.
The truth is that it did not make economic sense to renew Ibrahimovic’s contract at this point. United had the option of offering the 35-year-old another one-year deal but, with injury ruling him out until January at the earliest, £300,000 a week is a lot to pay for a player likely to miss the first five months of the season.
Ibrahimovic played only 46 games for United but made himself a fans’ favourite long before the last of them. In fact, a song that started with the line “Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he is our Swedish hero” was composed on the terraces even before he scored in his Premier League debut against Bournemouth in August.
Jose Mourinho employed a style of football that got the best out of Ibrahimovic, in particular allowing right-back Antonio Valencia the freedom to get forward and cross the ball. And it worked: Ibrahimovic, a free-transfer signing from Paris Saint-Germain last summer, scored 28 goals — 17 of them in the Premier League.
But although he scored a lot, he missed a lot, too. The Premier League’s official stats gatherer, Opta, calculated that he squandered 18 “big chances” last season — opportunities you would reasonably expect to be scored. Bournemouth striker Benik Afobe was next on the list with 13.
And while Ibrahimovic’s swagger and self-confidence was more than welcome at Old Trafford after three seasons during which it felt like the fear factor had disappeared, there will be a feeling among many supporters that the decision to let him go is the right one.
He was focal point for everything. United were almost bound by whether he was having a good day or a bad day in front of goal.
By contrast, Marcus Rashford offered blistering pace and energy when he deputised and, for many United fans, that was a wholly more exciting option.
Even before Ibrahimovic’s future was confirmed on Friday, Mourinho was busy looking for a replacement. Interest in Antoine Griezmann has been put on the back burner to pursue a No. 9 — probably Alvaro Morata but, if not, Andrea Belotti.
If Ibrahimovic’s time at United was going to end this summer, it probably should have been after scoring a Europa League final winner against his former club Ajax in his home city of Stockholm. As it was, he watched from the sidelines carrying crutches and, though he did finally get his hands on a European medal, it was not in the way he had hoped.
All that said, he will be remembered fondly at Old Trafford. His talent, coupled with that charisma, would have made him hard to forget even if he had failed. But he didn’t and his late winner in the EFL Cup final against Southampton, which sent 30,000 United fans bouncing around Wembley was almost worth every penny he was paid on its own.
Ibrahimovic helped United rediscover themselves after three years of underachievement. And as underwhelming as the ending was, there is an argument that it is the right time to move on.
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