Deal shows how far once mighty Man United has fallen

Signing ageing striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a gamble that the Manchester United of old would never have taken.

Published: 01st July 2016 07:59 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st July 2016 08:15 AM   |  A+A-

Zlatan Ibrahimovic_AP

The last time Zlatan Ibrahimovic was on the move, in the summer of 2012, Sir Alex Ferguson was preparing for his last season at Manchester United and buying the 29-year-old Robin van Persie, who would deliver him his 13th and final Premier League title.

- I'm joining Manchester United: Ibrahimovic

It is hard to recall United being in the market for Ibrahimovic then - he is older than Van Persie, who gave United one decent season and faded away. But it was the same a year later with Louis van Gaal, a manager who was nowhere near the United shortlist in 2013 and was then presented as the obvious choice 12 months later, largely because he was available.

United used to sign the great players in the prime of their careers, not when they became available. They never got all the ones they wanted, and the list of those who slipped away - Paul Gascoigne, Patrick Kluivert, Ronaldinho - is long, but it is a measure of where the club are that they are now signing a 34-year-old who would once have been considered too old and too self-absorbed for United.

The club have always spent big to acquire other clubs' best players, and when they did it tended to have a heartbreaking effect on rivals. Signing Bryan Robson, or Paul Ince, or Roy Keane, or Rio Ferdinand, or Wayne Rooney told other clubs, and other players, that for the best, in their prime, the lure of United was irresistible. Who are they competing with for Ibrahimovic?

Jose Mourinho's rationale is understood to be that Ibrahimovic is a leader for a squad with very few of them and therefore he has a value beyond what he might deliver on the pitch. Mourinho sees him in the same way as he did Didier Drogba in Chelsea's 2014-2015 season when he came back, aged 36 and played 40 games in a title-winning team.

That is the best argument in his favour and if he scores some goals at United, then even better - his total of 38 last season at Paris St-Germain was impressive, albeit in French football. But finding a leader also feels like the reason they signed Bastian Schweinsteiger last season.

Ibrahimovic's age is a consideration too, no matter what shape he is in. In the past Ferguson took some gambles on old players but never on this scale. Laurent Blanc was 35 when he signed for United in 2001, and so too Henrik Larsson when he had two months on loan in 2007.

Or look at it another way, Ruud van Nistelrooy was sold when he was 30. Roy Keane was considered expendable at 32. David Beckham was shown the door aged 28. These were all great United players but there was no indulgence of them. Rather there was great faith that there was someone younger and better ready to take their place.

Ibrahimovic's arrival has been compared to that of Eric Cantona but he was 26 when he came to United in 1992, and he did so in the process of rebuilding a career that had gone awry in France before he won the title at Leeds United. Ibrahimovic is winding down, and at a club where Ferguson once said the bus waited for no one, winding down was never good enough.


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