Catching Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s fine, bloody-minded match-winning turn for Manchester United in the EFL Cup final it was hard not to reach back in time for comparisons. Rewind to the early 1990s and English football’s restless north-western superpower needed fresh blood, a point of attacking inspiration to energize an emerging team. A new striker was signed to add stardust up front. History shows it worked, too. Dean Saunders scored 23 goals as Liverpool won the FA Cup in 1992.
Saunders left after one season – as Ibrahimovic still might – and went to Aston Villa, as Ibrahimovic, it seems fair to say, definitely will not. Oddly enough, in the EFL Cup final debrief Saunders has been largely overlooked as a point of reference. For Ibrahimovic the more exciting comparison is, of course, Eric Cantona, so often hailed as the pistol shot, the catalyst, the magic potion that set in train two decades of outrageous success for United.
The New Cantona talk has gathered around Ibrahimovic since his arrival in England, such has been his impact not just in terms of goals, but also swagger, glitz and basic fun after the hard maths of Louis van Gaal and the drippiness of the David Moyes interlude. No doubt such talk will get louder after the 3-2 victory against Southampton at Wembley, where Ibrahimovic bundled United across the line through a combination of fine finishing and simple champion will.
And yet it is also an almost entirely misleading comparison. For a start, there is the obvious contrast between the two players, Ibrahimovic’s exuberant, serial-champion’s arrogance versus Cantona’s quiet fire, that sense of furious unspent destiny. Beyond this, football itself has lost its border-bound insularity, to the extent it is hard to imagine the character and bearing of a single player could ever again have such a profound effect at elite club level.
But then English football has always loved messiahs, saviors, one-shot solutions, silver bullets. Plenty of other New Cantonas have been sighted in Manchester over the past few years. Dimitar Berbatov was talked up as a New Cantona eight years ago. Robin van Persie looked the part for at least six months. Quiet, diffident Anthony Martial was being compared to the once and future Eric after one match in the first team. Best of all perhaps is the newspaper headline from 2013 that suggested “Marouane Fellaini could have a similar impact to Eric Cantona at Manchester United according to former Red Devil Henning Berg”. To be fair, Fellaini does like kicking people.
In this case, the New Cantona talk jars for other reasons. Mainly what stands out is the profound differences between that callow, emerging early Cantona United and the current collection of slightly hurled-together elite players. Cantona was 26 when he came to United. The team he joined had the teenaged David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs coming through, with Roy Keane on his way the following summer.
No one could doubt Cantona was a huge influence, but take away six or seven of the best young players of their generation lurking just behind him, six years of struggle and planning, the furious bedding in of the early Ferguson years, and that kick-start, the magic dust, the Eric-spark simply doesn’t happen.
Fast forward 25 years and whatever problems United have now – four managers in four years, the rise of powerful opponents elsewhere – a similar yearning for A-list affirmation is not the most obvious. United had seven World Cup or Champions League finalists on the pitch at Wembley on Sunday. The current squad is at least as strong on paper as those at Chelsea, Leicester, Tottenham or most of the Champions League last 16.
If Ibrahimovic has lifted this team it is simply because he is a very good 35-year-old goalscorer, with the kind of razor edge that can gloss any result, flatter any performance and disguise unresolved issues of balance and chemistry elsewhere. Ibrahimovic is, if anything, the opposite of Cantona, an element of misdirection, a beard to his team-mate’s deficiencies rather than the spell that makes everyone play. At Wembley Ibrahimovic did not inspire his team-mates to new heights. He bailed them out, massaged the end result, carried them across the line on his muscular shoulders.
How much more encouraging if Paul Pogba, Martial and Marcus Rashford could have driven United on to victory against Southampton. This is the real rump of an emerging United team, three young players who would improve the prospects of any club in the world. Pogba has played better recently than he did on Sunday – when he was clunkingly bad – and has bounced productively off Ibrahimovic at times. And yet through the current run of gathering success in league and cups, all three of these younger players have been a little restless, a little angsty, a little underexploited.
The suggestion is that this United team have what pre-Suárez, pre-Neymar Barcelona fans might recognize as Zlatan-dependiencia. Sixteen times this season Ibrahimovic has scored the goal that won, sealed or saved a game. He has 15 goals in the league. Wayne Rooney, Rashford, Memphis Depay, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Jesse Lingard, Fellaini and Martial have 11 between the lot of them. Take Zlatan out – and there is no clear sign yet he’ll be here longer than the next 13 league games – and it’s hard to pin down any obvious progress in attacking rhythms, or a sense of some emergent team identity.
Not that this matters too much. United have a trophy on Ibrahimovic’s watch, a moment to bring the club’s supporters together at the start of a new managerial era. Four of their final seven league matches are against Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham, but there is good reason to assume United can make the top four. Should they do so even a single season from Ibrahimovic would qualify as a wonderful, self-contained success.
If anything he can simply buy José Mourinho time to build in his shadow. The real concern is surely still the defence, which was given a traumatic time at Wembley by Manolo Gabbiadini’s fine sniping movement. Eric Bailly is a very promising center-back, but the partnership with Chris Smalling seems always on the verge of a moment of scrabbling panic.
The midfield balance can look a little off against better teams, where Pogba is expected to hold the shape, struggling to combine this with his finer driving qualities. A younger-model Michael Carrick would be a handy addition.
Mourinho has at least been given some space to finesse these details by the enduring brilliance of Ibrahimovic, an outsize attacking star who is more likely to mask and soothe his team’s growing pains, than offer a triumphant, Eric-style final lick of paint.