Ibrahimovic offers experience and goals to Mourinho and Man United
Amid unrelenting demand for new players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic's name was far from the top of the list of the attacking signings Manchester United fans wanted to see their club make during this transfer window.
Antoine Greizmann was the top target, and the Atletico Madrid man wanted to come to Old Trafford, only to change his mind after his club's transfer ban was upheld. Meanwhile, Alvaro Morata also wanted to sign, and there was plenty of speculation that he would, before United went for Romelu Lukaku. As they did, the dynamic of the team and its characters shifted further away from last season, when Wayne Rooney and Ibrahimovic were the main men in the dressing room.
Paul Pogba's influence had been increasing, especially with the younger players, and it was the supremely confident French midfielder who took centre stage in the dressing room after United won the Europa League by dancing on a massage table; he was only interrupted when the club's honorary life president Martin Edwards went to shake his hand.
The injured Ibrahimovic, one of several players on crutches that May night, watched on. After a season in which he scored 28 goals, including winners in the Community Shield and EFL Cup final, Stockholm was supposed to be a crowning glory; the Swede winning a European trophy in his country's capital.
But football's fabled endings seldom materialize: Sir Alex Ferguson's United didn't reach the 2002 Champions League final in his home city of Glasgow, while legendary captain Bryan Robson was dropped for what could have been his last, triumphant game, the 1994 FA Cup final against Chelsea.
Jose Mourinho brought Ibrahimovic, who suffered a long-term knee injury in April, back onto the United agenda when he held his first press conference of the preseason at UCL in July. The United manager said what he'd known for months, that there was a chance the striker, whose initial one-year contract had expired by that point, could play for the club again.
Two days later, this writer sat in the StubHub Center press box during United's friendly with LA Galaxy and spoke to some of the journalists who cover the MLS club, and they were convinced that Ibrahimovic was Hollywood-bound, following in the footsteps of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole.
Yet Mourinho, who wanted the 35-year-old to rehabilitate and recover at United's AON training ground, thought differently. Staying in Manchester meant Ibrahimovic could live a normal life at home with his family, and it also meant he was more likely to have a second spell playing for Manchester United.
The time was not right to sanction a new contract for a veteran player, who had suffered an injury from which it usually takes 9-12 months to fully recover, an injury which ended careers three decades ago. Steve Coppell, the Liverpool-born winger, who made a record 206 consecutive appearances for United between 1975-83, needed three operations to rectify his anterior cruciate ligament before a surgeon told the 28-year-old to give up football if he wanted to be walking at the age of 35.
Within months, Ibrahimovic wasn't just walking, he was in the gym kicking a punch bag and putting the evidence about it on social media. Mourinho was impressed with the manner and attitude of his recovery -- as he was with those of Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo -- and began to talk with executive vice president Ed Woodward about a new contract.
Last week, Mourinho suggested that United's incoming transfer business was finished, but he also knew that Ibrahimovic was likely to return. The incentivised deal will pay significantly lower than that which he signed in 2016, and the dressing room to which he returns has changed.
So what can he offer? His boss thinks that he'll once again bring personality, drive and character. Pogba is the main man with the less-experienced players, but there are older players who look up to Ibrahimovic -- and not just because he's so tall. He's been a winner, has played at the biggest clubs around Europe and is respected as much for his desire to be the best as for his wicked put-downs.
Lukaku, who has started as well as Ibrahimovic did last year with three goals in his first two Premier League games, is likely to remain the main striker, but top teams need more than one. Indeed, they probably need more than two, so the addition can help as Marcus Rashford continues to find scoring consistency. The 19-year-old is fantastic but still squanders chances you'd expect Ibrahimovic -- who will take the No. 10 shirt vacated by Rooney after Lukaku asked his permission for No. 9 -- to score.
Mourinho needs more options. Too many times last season, United struggled to overcome mid-ranking opponents, especially at Old Trafford. Ibrahimovic would play every minute of every game, and although sometimes having him on the pitch led to a breakthrough, other times it did not.
Although Ibrahimovic will expect to start matches, two games a week are likely to be a challenge for a man who turns 36 in October. He will be a great option to bring off the bench, and Mourinho has already made some masterful substitutions so far this term, usually involving Marouane Fellaini and Anthony Martial.
It is Mourinho's job to work out how best to use Ibrahimovic, but fans have confidence in their manager. One of the game's greatest players of the past two decades, whose game has shown no discernible decline, is back. And don't we know it.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.