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Without a doubt, the most stunning news of the opening weekend in the Premier League was Arsenal’s home capitulation; as eye-catching as it was to see Liverpool take a 4-1 lead at the Emirates Stadium, perhaps an more understated moment earlier in the day may indicate where the difference could be in the title race this season.
Understated is certainly not a word one would commonly associate with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who spent some time in media interviews before Manchester United’s game with Bournemouth discussing the perception of him as arrogant.
There is a Scandinavian word, ‘kæk’, (it is Danish, but it illustrates the point) which translates as ‘bold and cocky’ but it isn’t meant in the same way that arrogant is. It is a term that one could easily apply to a former Manchester United great, Peter Schmeichel; he had the air of arrogance, which is probably mistaken for a supreme self-confidence.
It’s probably fitting that some in the press stick to the lazy terms that best support the narrative of the character we want to portray, terms that already exist within the parameters of the words we know. It explains our surprise and, perhaps more crucially, our curiosity and awe of that personality trait. We are British, we are Irish, we are taught to be self-deprecating.
There was a lot of talk, of comparisons between Ibrahimovic and Eric Cantona, and suggestions that the forward could have a similar impact as the Frenchman did in the sense of revitalising a football club.
While we are confronting misconceptions and hyperbole let us paint an accurate picture. Cantona’s arrival at Old Trafford came at a time when the club hadn’t won the league for 26 years. It is the same as an individual player walking into Liverpool and transforming them into the kind of global giant United are today; attracting the sort of players their rivals up at Anfield can only dream of.
Cantona wasn’t solely responsible and he certainly didn’t arrive with the public profile of Zlatan; more of an enfant terrible whose exits at clubs were usually acrimonious to say the least than someone with the glittering past of the Swede. But his true ability not only blossomed on the big stage, but it inspired those around him.
It would surprise those whose idea of Cantona is formed by the modern, bolshy individual who stars in beer adverts, but Cantona was quiet, thoughtful, and crucially, dedicated to being the best he could be. That would involve extra training - itself not an alien concept, but introduced when it was at United, had an impact that is simply unquantifiable. The likes of Gary Neville and David Beckham observed as the player spent extra time trying to improve his game and the youngsters at the club could not believe that this was the attitude of the man who was very much the central figure in title triumphs of 1993 and 1994. The ripple effect was felt down the generations through the league titles which followed even after Cantona’s retirement and the hundreds of young players who, while perhaps not necessarily strong enough to get in United’s first team, made fine league careers for themselves. It is often credited to Sir Alex Ferguson, as well it should be, but every manager needs a player as an example; from Cantona to the class of 92 (and let us forget Ryan Giggs only retired in 2014), that dedication to improvement and success was felt through the generations.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic cannot propel Manchester United into the same arena as Eric Cantona did but he can help them stay there by adopting the same principles. It seems absurd that Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney are unable to have the same influence on younger players, considering all that they have won, but maybe that’s the allure of the personality and reputation that is attached to Zlatan.
In all honesty the forward lingered on the periphery of the game for much of the first half on Sunday but one has to expect some transitional time. Ibrahimovic scored a stunning overhead kick minutes into his friendly debut; on his competitive debut for the club, he scored the winner in the Community Shield, and he continued his fine record of scoring on league debuts with a stunning 25 yard drive. By that time there were the seeds of what we might expect, with an exceptional flick to set up a Rooney chance and then another classy move which left a defender on his backside. Ibrahimovic is still settling into a side where the identity of his team-mates may change and into a league where the pace will differ week to week.
There were no conclusions to be taken from an opening game but there were clues as to what we might expect. Whereas, over the last two years, Manchester United may well have become frustrated by a resolute Bournemouth display (it’s difficult to imagine, for example, Juan Mata being given the requisite freedom which resulted in the opening goal in the Louis van Gaal era), yesterday they showed patience and persistence.
There was an assurance remarkably similar to that seen in the Ferguson days, a confidence that they would eventually break down their opponents- a trait carried everywhere by Mourinho, but notable by its absence at Old Trafford in a team that had seemingly had their self-belief sucked from them completely when David Moyes was appointed manager.
Mourinho spoke about Ibrahimovic’s immediate influence on the likes of Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford, and it is arguably this element which most justifies the comparison to Cantona; those are two players who you would guess have emerged from the traumatic period in United’s recent history (if indeed, it is over) with their self-confidence intact. For other players; those with potential but who have seemingly lost their way - the likes of Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini, Memphis Depay, and even the defenders like Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Antonio Valencia, Zlatan’s presence may well elevate their self-confidence. They may raise their game as a consequence.
But there can be no conclusions drawn at this point. It seems another world but there was a time when Angel Di Maria looked like he would be a sure star at United. Conversely, when Eric Bailly was caught out by Jamie Vardy in the first half last week at Wembley, there were knee-jerk reactions already questioning the wisdom of buying a defender from Villareal. It’s precisely why caution ought to be exercised by his fine recovery.
After an unpredictable 12 months in the top division, at least Arsenal are doing their bit to throw in some consistency - and the opening weekend suggested that elsewhere, the natural order of things may slowly be in the process of being restored.
Follow Wayne Barton on Twitter @Yolkie_
Wayne Barton has been the football columnist for international broadcaster Setanta Sports since 2011 and has been described by the Independent as ‘the leading writer on Manchester United on the period between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’ after numerous books on the club and autobiographies. The most recent are ‘74/75’ with Tommy Docherty and ‘Rise Of The Underdog’, the autobiography of Danny Higginbotham.
Wayne has also worked in Hollywood and across the USA with Gold and Platinum selling musicians and actors from the monster hit TV show ‘Breaking Bad’.