With Zlatan Ibrahimovic expected to join Manchester United this summer, Roy Keane likened the Sweden star to Eric Cantona. Can Ibra really be the new Eric?
Keane – never one to lavish praise on anyone who didn’t deserve it, or often those who do – had some very flattering words for Ibrahimovic when he was asked about the prospect of the 34-year-old joining United this summer.
Former captain Keane, who spent 12 years at Old Trafford, drew a comparison between Ibrahimovic and one of his former team-mates, United icon Cantona.
“Of course Ibrahimovic is a good fit for United, he’s a good player.
“They’re big characters, clearly, whatever you say about Cantona, he was a popular lad, and I get the impression Zlatan is the same.
“Whatever about his playing career, you hear from his team-mates and he seems to be a bit of a character, and you can see that in the way he plays.
“It’s good to see that, because there’s a lack of characters out there, and he certainly is that. On top of all that, he’s a very, very good player.”
Given all that Cantona achieved and inspired at Old Trafford, Keane’s comments are likely to further excite United fans who are already anticipating the arrival of Zlatan. But should Ibra complete his move as expected, how does he really compare to the Red Devils legend?
Hashtags weren’t in vogue when Cantona strutted into Old Trafford, but the Frenchman timed his arrival perfectly. United were 26 years without a title and still reeling from having the First Division Championship snatched from their grasp by Cantona’s Leeds the previous season. After an indifferent start to the 1992-93 season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were eighth in the table when the manager made a cheeky enquiry to Leeds over Cantona’s availability. United lost only two further games throughout the rest of the season after Cantona shook the place up, helping to secure the first ever Premier League title.
Despite having leaders like Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce, Peter Schmeichel and Mark Hughes around the squad, Ferguson still United would benefit from Cantona being allowed to set his example. Now, regardless of Jose Mourinho’s arrival, United are crying out for a similar impact signing, with the playing squad desperately lacking the type of characters who occupied the dressing room that Cantona inspired.
There is only so much provoking and cajoling that Mourinho can do from the touchline and on the training ground. The players, more so today that in the early 1990s, need a figurehead on the pitch and the new manager knows the squad he inherited simply does not have one. Mourinho will push from the bench be he needs Zlatan to pull from the front, like Cantona dragged the best out of his United team-mates.
Zlatan will walk into a dressing room with numerous title winners. Seven of Mourinho’s new squad won the Premier League under Ferguson, while the likes of Mata, Schweinsteiger and Blind have plenty of medals to put on the table. Cantona joined a squad without a domestic title winner in it, one that had ‘bottled’ it the previous season, to Cantona’s advantage. But it still seems that Zlatan’s example is needed more now than Cantona’s then.
Since Mourinho’s arrival, many ex-Reds have spoken about the need for Mourinho to re-impose a winning mentality at Old Trafford, with some, including Keane, not overly enamoured with the Portuguese but willing to accept that he has the required mindset. Ibrahimovic brings the same.
No one would dispute Ferguson’s credentials before he won his first title for United, but Cantona’s arrival made all the difference. As Peter Schmeichel put it:
“He changed the mentality and changed the way of everything.”
Mourinho needs Ibrahimovic in much the same way. United have lots of fine players, tidy technicians who can play sublime football when they are allowed to do so. But they, like many of their Premier League rivals, lack the killer instinct required at the very highest level of the world game. Ibrahimovic undoubtedly possesses that, which he credits to Fabio Capello, and also Mourinho:
“He turned me from a cat into a lion, dragged things out of me at Inter that no one had done before.”
It’s Zlatan’s turn to repay the favour by working some of the same magic on his prospective new team-mates.
‘Bit of a boy’ with an ego
You might think from the bravado and the hype around Ibrahimovic – much of it self generated – that it’s always all about Zlatan. Of course, such a persona suits Ibra and the agendas of the people around him. But much of it is just for show.
Listen to many of the players who’ve won medals alongside Ibrahimovic and they will speak of the driven winner who puts side before self – much like Cantona. Of course, Ibrahimovic says that of himself too: “Wherever I have played, I have won. But I only feel satisfied if my team-mates, the fans, everyone is happy. I have a big heart,” he told the BBC. On the same theme, he said this to ESPN:
“I would be nothing without the team and my team-mates. I am playing with very good players, players who respect me. I respect them. Respect is a very important notion for me. You can’t do well if there is no respect. We work hard every day to reach the same goals and objectives. Everything comes with hard work.
Like Cantona, wherever he has played, Ibrahimovic has left behind many friends because of his attitude.
David Luiz simply says, “you know, this guy is brilliant,” whereas Thiago Motta was happier to go into detail about how PSG could possibly replace Ibrahimovic.
“Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar? They are very important players, who make a difference on the pitch. But I’d like to see if they can behave as leaders, as did Ibra. If not, we risk going backwards.”
Even Keane is willing to overlook the bullsh*t, as he’d probably put it, because he recognises the grafter in Ibrahimovic. “He looks a bit of a boy. Do you know what that means in Cork? I will try to explain it to you later. You’ll have to Google it. Bit of a boy, one you want to be in the trenches with.”
Ibrahimovic has also enough self-awareness to recognise that he has to adapt his game – and his body – as he approaches his 35th birthday, which this article on The Set Pieces explains.
A good influence?
One of the biggest concerns voiced about the probable recruitment of Ibrahimovic surrounds Marcus Rashford. Some fear that the veteran’s arrival will stunt the progress of the 18-year-old. Surely, though, a season under Ibrahimovic’s wing would serve Rashford better in the long term?
One of the few positives for last season was the emergence of the likes of Rashford, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Guillermo Varela, with a few more coming up through the ranks behind them. Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and Andreas Peirera also are only 20 and Ibra can help them in the same way the likes of the Class of ’92 looked up to Cantona.
In his autobiography, Gary Neville explained the awe around Cantona.
“None of us got to know Eric well, although there was a vast, massive respect for him. He had massively high standards; he was a perfectionist. But because it was Eric, you didn’t feel belittled, it just made you strive to do better. We were desperate to impress him.”
Ibrahimovic shares Cantona’s work ethic: “You need the hunger to be a better player. That’s when I feel I have accomplished something, when I learn new things. I demand new things and to learn and to work hard on the pitch.”
HIs international team-mate, John Guidetti, certainly backs up Ibrahimovic’s claim.
“He is fantastic, great. The way he speaks with all the younger players, the way he demands quality, it is a true pleasure to play with him.
“There’ll never be another Zlatan: he’s a one-off. The way that he talked and behaved has inspired me.”
At club level, PSG team-mate Maxwell is similarly impressed and says of their young prospects:
“They can use Ibrahimovic as an example – he works and trains each day like it was his first.”
Like Cantona, Ibrahimovic doesn’t suffer mediocrity well, from himself or anyone around him. United’s great teams have always been full of players who drive each other on from the expectations of one another, but the feeling among many fans is that the current squad has gone soft – on themselves and those who stand in their way. Mourinho can drag the best out of players but United need a presence like Ibrahimovic who, in a similar way to Keane, will demand nothing the best from his new team-mates, but in return, will also be willing to go to war for them. Perhaps that’s why Keane likes Ibra: they share a lot of similar qualities and such an influence can only be positive for United’s young players.
United, like most Premier League sides in the early 1990s, played a straightforward 4-4-2 and Cantona formed a productive partnership with Mark Hughes. Either were equally comfortable leading the line, but more often than not, it was Cantona who would drop off into the spaces between the opposition lines.
Cantona scored nine goals in a half a season’s worth of appearances after joining in late November, matching the tallies of Ryan Giggs and Brian McClair, but his creativity gave United a new dimension, with the Frenchman creating 16 goals.
Ibrahimovic similarly is more than a goalscorer, with the Swede having assisted 13 Ligue 1 goals for PSG last season, though it is his strike rate that will excite United fans most. The Swede notched a stunning 38 goals in 31 league appearances – more than United’s top six Premier League scorers last season.
Mourinho’s teams generally play with a physical, robust centre-forward, which is why the new manager wants Ibrahimovic. Rashford finished the season through the middle for United and while he will surely thrive in that role long term, more immediately, Mourinho needs the finished article. Rashford will get minutes in his preferred position, though Mourinho may have plans for him in a wide role on the right, which would enhance his development as an all-round striker. The prospect of Ibrahimovic rampaging through the middle with Martial and Rashford flying either side of him is one United fans would be forgiven for salivating over.
The new Cantona?
Keane’s comparison is a fair one and Mourinho will certainly believe Ibrahimovic can have a similar impact. The Swede has less time than Cantona to build a legacy, given he will likely sign a one-year deal with the option for a further year, but United have craved an icon since Robin van Persie’s glorious 2012-13 season, and before him, Cristiano Ronaldo.
In signing Ibrahimovic, United have been accused of taking a short-term view, which itself is a short-sighted viewpoint. It was Cantona’s signing that paved the way for Ferguson’s first Premier League title and Van Persie’s arrival led directly to his last. Asking Ibrahimovic to follow Cantona and Van Persie’s immediate title successes may not be fair given United seem further off the pace now than in either 1992 or 2012. But as a serial winner working with Mourinho again, he certainly can be a catalyst for better days at Old Trafford.
By Ian Watson
Do you agree with Ian’s thoughts? What would you expect from Zlatan should he complete his move to Manchester United?