Manchester United cannot risk Ibrahimovic walking away

The tug-of-war between Manchester United and Zlatan Ibrahimovic over a new contract is an ugly footnote to what has been one of the great debut seasons in the history of the Premier League.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been a standout for Manchester United this season Source: Getty Images

As we edge toward the expiry of his current deal, it’s more than a footnote: it’s threatening to become the main story.

The more it drags on, the more realistic it becomes that he could leave, as speculated this week by his agent, Mino Raiola - "anything could happen … we'll see what happens next year”. 

And like most stories, there’s two sides to it.

With 26 goals in all competitions thus far, Ibrahimovic has made an impact that exceeded all expectations – perhaps except his own, which tend to be stratospheric in any case. 

The Swedish champion is in such form that he’ll be odds-on to score for United as they play host to Bournemouth tonight (11pm, Live on SBS and on the TWG app) at Old Trafford, a match that could see Jose Mourinho’s side vault above Arsenal (two points ahead) and Liverpool (one point ahead) into the top four. 

At 35, Ibra shows no signs of slowing down. His legendary power remains absolute, complemented by the finesse and speed of mind that have defined his game.

He’s probably better suited to the Premiership than most European strikers, thriving on the quick movement and half-chances that invariably pop up in the English game. 

"I have no individual targets because that I did already, after three months in England," Ibrahimovic said in January.

"After I conquered England – it took three months."

Two goals in last weekend's EFL Cup final victory over Southampton confirmed his words. Both of his goals came at critical points, and it was his second that decided the outcome. He is a clutch player in every sense of the word. 

All this seems to suggest that Ibrahimovic’s contract extension is a very much a decision for the player, not the club. He’s the one in form, and therefore holds the bargaining chips. 

Indeed, there is a one-year extension clause ready to be activated, which United remain optimistic about. 

Here comes the sticking point.

Sources close to the inner workings at Old Trafford say Ibrahimovic wants two years, not one. And, clearly, he wants a pay increase that reflects his exceptional year. 

United, on the other hand, are uneasy about both of those propositions as it doesn’t represent their long-term plan. Ibrahimovic will turn 37 inside 18 months. 

He was supposed to be a one-year, short-term option that allowed United to stay competitive while they plugged more matches and experience into the likes of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard. 

However, Jose Mourinho’s team have become so dependant on Ibrahimovic that the balance of power has shifted – dramatically – from club to player. He’s not just a stop-gap solution. He’s probably the most marketable player in England right now, even eclipsing Paul Pogba.
If United (as has been the case for several years now) fail to qualify for the UEFA Champions League, they’ll need to utilise every asset they have to keep their brand strong. 

This might sound like corporate gobbledygook, but Ibrahimovic provides the kind of marketing cut-through that defies league position.

It means when the club looks to negotiate the commercial deals that has made them the biggest club (financially-speaking) in the world, their hand doesn’t look as weak as their league position. 

Again, that might sound irrelevant to the average fan, but Ibrahimovic’s £220,000-per-week wages ($356,000) are well and truly offset by what the club generates in sponsorship returns elsewhere.

Last year, non-TV commercial revenues rose by £71.4 million ($115.6 million) to £268.3 million ($434.4 million) – the arrival of Pogba and Ibrahimovic should see them break £300 million ($485.7 million) this year. 

Indeed, considering he signed on a free transfer, Ibrahimovic actually represents good value for United, not to mention a zero on the balance sheet (a clear win regarding Financial Fair Play rules). 

And being exposed to a player of such exceptional quality can only help the likes of Martial, Rashford and Lingard, whilst giving Mourinho more time to focus on finding a genuine number nine. 

If it was initially seen as a risk to sign Ibrahimovic, with his career winding to a close, the bigger risk is now surely seeing him walk away.

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4 min read
Published 4 March 2017 at 12:00pm
By Sebastian Hassett