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Zlatan Ibrahimovic left an indelible mark at Manchester United

Zlatan Ibrahimovic signed for Manchester United as a free agent in the summer of 2016 after leaving Paris Saint-Germain at the end of the 2015/16 season. The Swedish international signed a one-year contract at the Old Trafford club and because of his age, it was suggested that he would not achieve much at the club. That will be something that the striker looks back on and laughs at, even into his old age. The Swede just fit in at United immediately and showed his class and leadership – which was needed.

United’s third-choice goalkeeper, Lee Grant, who arrived after Ibrahimovic left the Old Trafford club, has lifted the lid on what it was like at the club with Zlatan there, seemingly in the perspective of the players who were there during the Swede’s 21 months at the club. Ibrahimovic was offered a new one-year contract at the club at the end of his first season, which ended on the sidelines after suffering ligament damage to his right knee in a UEFA Europa League match, missing the rest of the season.

During his short-lived career at United, Zlatan made a total of 53 appearances, scoring 29 goals and 10 assists, which at the age of 36, which was his age when he left the club, was a great achievement. It was a shame that it was not going to work at United with the player moving onto LA Galaxy in the MLS as a free agent. It was good to see the player actually play for United, which should have happened years ago and could have resulted in more trophies for the club and for the man himself.

Grant, who signed for United in July 2018, almost four months after Zlatan departed for Los Angeles, heard many stories from his new teammates about Zlatan, a player that he had faced in October 2016 when United drew 1-1 with Stoke City. The 37-year-old goalkeeper recently spoke to the official Manchester United website about Zlatan, albeit through stories passed on by his teammates, showing the indelible mark that the Swede left at the Theatre of Dreams on his departure, something the player will be proud of. Grant said:

“His period at the club had just come to an end but the lads would talk about him constantly. ‘Do you remember when Zlatan did this?’

“‘Do you remember him getting on to such and such in training and he nearly made him cry?’ ‘Do you remember that thing he does, the kung-fu kick over his head?’

“‘Do you remember Zlatan scored that goal? Do you remember when he nutmegged that guy and absolutely took the [micky]?’

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, who is this Zlatan character?’ but that was what it was like all the time.”

Grant then spoke about his only meeting against Zlatan, a 1-1 draw with Stoke City, Grant’s former club in October 2016 – a match in which Anthony Martial opened the scoring in the 69th minute of the match with Joe Allen equalising eight minutes from time. The United goalkeeper spoke confidently about his match against this Zlatan character who his teammates seemed to miss dearly, always reminiscing him. Grant then said, jokingly:

“I had him on toast. He’s in my pocket here somewhere. Of course, I wouldn’t say that to his face. If I was training against him, I would imagine he would have me on toast more than I had him on toast but that was a good day for me.”

Ibrahimovic is now back at AC Milan, in what is his third stint at the club having left LA Galaxy in November 2019. During the January transfer window, the Swede signed for Milan for the remainder of the season. On the 1 August 2020, still playing competitive football because of the coronavirus pandemic and the three-month delay on world football, Zlatan became the oldest player to have scored 10 Serie A goals aged 38 years and 302 days, breaking the record of Silvio Piola which was set in the 1950s. Ibrahimovic has played a total of 761 club matches, scoring 467 goals and 185 assists during his career so far, which may well continue.

Written by John Walker

Looking at Manchester United’s defensive depth for the 2019/20 season

Manchester United did well during the summer transfer window, adding Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who signed from Crystal Palace and Harry Maguire, who arrived from Leicester City. It was a summer that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needed to pay attention to the defence, which allowed more than 50 goals to be conceded in the Premier League along last season.

Solskjaer spent £125 million; £80 million for Maguire and an initial £45 million for Wan-Bissaka giving some much-needed defensive ability ahead of the 2019/20 season in which United would be tasked with chasing the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, to regain a place in the top four of the league.

United finished sixth last season, five points adrift of a place in the top four, which could have been much different if United managed to beat both Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City at the end of the season. However, hindsight is only fantastic when you look back as if you change two factors, other factors may have had to change also.

Goalkeeper depth; Solskjaer does not need to worry in this area.

Solskjaer has three great first-team options in goal this season; David De Gea, Sergio Romero and Lee Grant. That will be the order of importance in the squad. The club also had the likes of Dean Henderson, Joel Pereira and Kieran O’Hara, who have all been loaned out to Sheffield United, Hearts of Midlothian and Burton Albion respectively.

De Gea will be the go-to guy to start the majority of matches, namely in the Premier League. As for the Carabao Cup, the UEFA Europa League and the Emirates FA Cup, it could well be Romero who features, as he did in the cup competitions last season, other than the UEFA Champions League, of course. Grant could be a shoo-in for matches in these competitions too.

It was hoped that Henderson could have been afforded time in the Premier League this season but with De Gea’s contract being extended by the extra year agreed to in 2015, it was unlikely that he would be the first option in the goalkeeping ranks, however, he will get that Premier League experience he craved for, which might do him some good.

Fullback depth; Solskjaer’s options are much improved this season.

Last season, United’s defence left a lot to be desired. First of all, in the fullback position, Jose Mourinho, who started the season as manager, then Solskjaer had Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Matteo Darmian, Luke Shaw, and Diogo Dalot to choose from in both the left-back and right-back positions. Not a lot of pace, or youth for that matter.

Valencia was on the sidelines for much of the season, leaving the other four to contend for places in the squad. Young was often criticised, as way Shaw. Dalot was too inexperienced, but gave his all and Darmian seldom played. This season though, after the departure of Valencia, Wan-Bissaka arrived and has improved the position greatly.

Both Wan-Bissaka and Shaw will face competition from Young and Dalot, who can both play on the left or the right. Darmian may still play a part despite his future up in the air, although his current contract will expire at the end of the season. The fullback role is looking good for the current season with youth coming through the ranks to add more competition.

Central defensive depth; the strongest defence in six years?

Solskjaer has Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, Harry Maguire, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo and Axel Tuanzebe in his ranks for the current season. There was the rumour of Rojo likely to depart before the closure of the European transfer window at the start of September, but it is just rumour right now. With seven players, there is some depth in this area.

Bailly is injured until the Christmas period, meaning Solskjaer has six players contesting two positions in the squad. Lindelof and Maguire secured the central defensive area in the 4-0 victory over Chelsea at Old Trafford last weekend and will be expected to resume their positions against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Monday evening.

In case of injury to either Lindelof or Maguire, or the need for rotation, Tuanzebe will be a great option for Solskjaer as he did well during pre-season and learned some valuable things on loan with Aston Villa last season. The likes of Jones and Smalling could also be considered. Rojo not so much, based on pre-season appearances.

The depth of this squad is pretty good, despite the moaning for central midfield signings during the summer transfer window. Solskjaer will have had targets and if it was not possible to sign them, panic buying was just going to create more problems in the future with many players on high wages and unable to be moved on; Alexis Sanchez for instance.

United have many options in different areas; a minimum of three players, counting those already in the first team this season, which are players who have already made their debuts for the club in the recent years. In some positions, United has four sometimes five options, based on my opinion on where they would be able to play in the 4-2-3-1 formation.

This is the formation which Solskjaer has used more often than not, and a formation which will get the best out of the attacking players, using their hunger, determination and more importantly, their pace to launch attacking and counter-attacking plays during matches. Solskjaer’s identity seems to be young, courage and success.

Above, you can see the 4-2-3-1 formation, keeping an eye on the defence where there is a minimum of three players for each position, listed in order of importance to the squad. At fullback, both Wan-Bissaka and Shaw seem to be safe, although the emergence of Dalot could change that, more for Shaw, if he does not improve as he should have.

In the centre of defence, Lindelof and Maguire are certain to start more matches together, fitness and injury aside, but in that instance, there is some depth which could help get United through a difficult time. Tuanzebe, at least for me, is trusted more than the likes of Jones and Smalling; Bailly is at the bottom because of injury at the present time.

If the Ivorian improves his game, he could add more competition for either centre-back, which in turn will inspire players to perform to the best of their ability in order to keep their place. Competition is the best thing to bring the best out of players. This defence could achieve a lot; first of all to ensure they concede fewer than 54 goals this season.

copyright: JW