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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has had plenty to celebrate this season.IAN KINGTON/Getty Images

The six-man shortlist for the PFA Player of the Year award was recently announced, and Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic is among the contenders.

In truth, he is unlikely to take home the trophy and may count himself fortunate to be a part of the conversation given, for example, Dele Alli’s omission from the senior list.

After all, while Ibrahimovic’s goal record is impressive—and vital to United’s campaign—he also tops the Premier League by some distance for big chances missed, per the competition’s website. 

Of the attacking contenders—everyone other than N’Golo Kante—he has hit the lowest percentage (55) of his shots on target, per BBC Sport. 

Had he made better use of the chances available to him, Jose Mourinho’s side may be in a considerably more comfortable position.

Contrarily, had Ibrahimovic not been around, things could have been even less comfortable.

Ibrahimovic has been at the heart of things for United.

Ibrahimovic has been at the heart of things for United.Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press

He has 17 goals and five assists in the league, meaning he has directly contributed to just under 46 per cent of United’s league goals. Of the award contenders, only Romelu Lukaku has that figure beaten, with his 24 goals and six assists meaning he has directly contributed to half of Everton’s league goals this season.

United have earned 25 points from games in which Ibrahimovic goals or assists have been responsible for the outcome of the match—i.e., games that finished 1-1 in which he scored United’s goal or games that finished 3-1 in which he scored or assisted at least two goals.

Add to that his performance in cup competitions, and it is clear just how important he has been to United. He scored the winner in the Community Shield before the season started in earnest, and added another winner at Wembley Stadium in the EFL Cup final, during which he also opened the scoring.

It was not just finals, either. He scored the only goal as United beat Zorya Luhansk at home in the Europa League group stage and a hat-trick against Saint-Etienne to get them through to the quarter-finals. He assisted the winner in the EFL Cup derby against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City back in October. In the big moments, he has been there.

Making an argument for him to win the PFA Player of the Year award in a season wherein Kante is a prohibitive price and Ibrahimovic is a 20-1 outsider, per Oddschecker, is always going to be a fundamentally academic endeavour, but for the sake of that argument, we turned to United supporters on Twitter to make the case.  





If the PFA trophy were handed out for defying expectations, Ibrahimovic would be a shoo-in. As has been pointed out above, there were plenty of doubts. In February 2016, the Telegraph published an article entitled “Zlatan Ibrahimovic would flop at Man Utd—here’s why.” It contained the following paragraph:

The Premier League is a hard enough place for a 24-year-old, let alone someone 10 years older. Plenty of world-class talent from abroad has come to England’s top flight and found the going too tough—think Angel di Maria, Radamel Falcao, Bastian Schweinsteiger. It’s all very well forging your reputation in Serie A, where all you have to do is blow on an opponent and get penalised, and then filling your boots in France, but end-to-end, high tempo won’t suit Ibra’s ‘style.’

The paper could hardly have been more wrong.


The fact he has played almost every game has probably been a mistake on Mourinho’s part. The manager should have given his star man a few more games off, but there can be no doubting that the 35-year-old Ibrahimovic has more stamina than many expected. And Zaman’s point about scoring in all competitions is solid—Kante and Eden Hazard have predominantly made their impacts in the league.

If Chelsea end up winning the FA Cup, that argument’s validity is reduced, but if they do not, the point stands.


The first of those points has been covered above, but the later points are valid. Ibrahimovic has been happy to hold on to the limelight and has clearly worked as a reference point for his team-mates on and off the pitch.

On the pitch, his influence is visible. When United scored against Anderlecht in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final tie, Ibrahimovic was visible in the huddle, stressing the need for the Red Devils not to take their foot off the gas. Though they did, he obviously had the right idea.

After the EFL Cup final win, Chris Smalling described Zlatan as “our main man,” and while the captaincy has been passed around to the player on the pitch who has been at United the longest of late, Ibrahimovic is clearly the de facto leader.


Consider it done.


The problem with this argument is that one of the reasons the team has struggled to score goals has been Ibrahimovic himself. While his contribution has surely been a net positive, it is not just the missed chances that count against him on this front.

The attack has been built almost entirely around him, which has led to some problems when he has dropped deep to roam for possession. All too often, United have been left without a tip of the spear because their most advanced player has dropped into midfield to influence the game there instead.

Of course, this being Twitter, not all the responses were serious.


That was far too good a line not to include.


We end on a positive note. Ibrahimovic’s tendency to roam does have a significant upside, which as Henderson said, is how he brings his team-mates into play. He is often surprisingly unselfish given his reputation. And Ibrahimovic’s own comments on the PFA nominees echo this unselfishness. He said, per the Telegraph:

It depends how you look at it. For me, if the collective is good, the individual becomes good. So I think whoever wins it deserves to win it. It is nothing I focus on, it is not my objective. I have other objectives. Let’s see who wins it.

I think a player like that [Kante] would do well anywhere. In his case he gets a lot of credit for what he is doing. But normally players like that who run a lot, I remember [Blaise] Matuidi at PSG, they don’t get the credit they deserve because they are more important than people think they are. [Kante] would play [well] in any team.

While Ibrahimovic remains an unlikely winner for this award, he has had a remarkable season. His final line about Kante has proved correct about the Swede too. Almost no one expected him to do what he has done at United this season, but it turns out he too can “play well in any team.”

Whatever happens next, his time at Old Trafford will be fondly remembered.

  

Quotations obtained firsthand where not otherwise stated.



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