Why Zlatan is such a big influence
It should be a memorable week for Manchester United youngster Anthony Elanga.
The 19-year-old has been rewarded for his recent performances in a red shirt, with a first-ever call-up to Sweden’s senior squad – and the opportunity to be involved around the Scandinavians’ key World Cup play-off game with Czech Republic should be invaluable.
Elanga will be able to lean on the help and advice of United team-mate and Sweden captain Victor Lindelof, while legendary forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic is also in the squad.
When it comes to learning from senior players, there are few better than the former United and PSG goal-getter, who has experienced almost everything in the game.
Remarkably, Ibrahimovic is influencing AC Milan’s Serie A challenge at the age of 40 and has been credited as a decisive figure in the Rossoneri’s two-year transformation from Europa League qualifiers to title hopefuls.
Stefano Pioli’s side were 11th in the table when Ibrahimovic was coaxed back for a second spell at the club in December 2019, but 55 league appearances and 33 goals later the Rossoneri have a real chance of a first major trophy in over a decade.
Our right-back Diogo Dalot shared a dressing room with Zlatan while on loan at the San Siro in 2020/21 and cited his professionalism and desire as a real force which has rubbed off on the Italian club, who top Serie A at the time of writing with two months of the season to play.
“He’s very demanding on ourselves,” Dalot said last February. “Ibra is always one of the first to come into the training ground.
“So these kinds of things help us to see that maybe we need to be as professional as him because, if you want to win as much as he won, you need to be doing this for a long time.
“He can give you the confidence when he thinks you need it. That sometimes means being brutally honest. Coming from him, we need to listen.”
Ibrahimovic was often portrayed as a difficult character, certainly in his earlier years.
At Ajax, he fell out with team-mates Rafael van der Vaart and Mido and there was a dispute with Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, but the testimonies of Reds who were breaking into the first-team set-up during Ibrahimovic’s season-and-a-half at Old Trafford paint a different picture.
After four years of domination at Paris Saint-Germain, where he became the all-time top scorer before being overtaken by Edinson Cavani, he was eager for more silverware with the Reds – then managed by Jose Mourinho.
That attitude rubbed off on Jesse Lingard, in particular: “As soon as he came to Man United you could feel that aura around him.
“He had that winning mentality and that drove us, motivated us to win many trophies. Not many people have had that effect.
“He had that raw winning mentality; he’d played at big clubs before and had that winning mentality. He came to Man United and said he wanted to win trophies.
“At that time, I was a young player, Marcus Rashford was young.
“As soon as we won that first trophy it made us hungry for more, so I’d say he brought that winning factor and winning mentality to the team.”
Rashford agrees with that viewpoint after playing alongside Ibrahimovic during the latter’s 28-goal season in 2016/17, which powered United to Europa League and EFL Cup wins.
“His mentality was beyond anything I’d ever played with before,” Marcus added.
“He didn’t care what anyone would say or what anyone was saying about him.
“In terms of mentality, he was key to my development.”
As a player half Ibrahimovic’s age, Elanga should be keen to squeeze as much knowledge as he can out of his team-mate over the coming week as Sweden look to book a place at the World Cup.
Zlatan is hoping to make a third appearance at the finals, after being part of the Scandinavians’ squads in 2002 and 2006.
And, as Scott McTominay notes, the veteran striker won't allow any passengers having made a shock return to the fold last year, five years on from his initial international retirement.
“[He was] ruthless. I’m not going to say too much more than that,” McTominay told UEFA in an interview in 2021.
“Good professional, worked hard, big, big presence in the dressing room in terms of his voice and the way that he is with people.
“He’s a ruthless guy in terms of the way he wants to win 24/7, if you’re not on the same page as him, then you won’t succeed under him, he’ll make life hard for you, so you'd better work hard at winning, otherwise it’ll be a tough time for you.
“I love guys like that in football. He’s obviously had a legendary career which is a real credit to him, and obviously to his family as well, so I have nothing but big praise for him.
“He’s a tough guy to be around sometimes, but that’s the positive – I can be [tough to be around] as well.”
We’d like to wish Anthony, Victor, Zlatan and the rest of the Sweden squad the best of luck ahead of Thursday’s game.