Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Why Man Utd must keep striker - Alan Shearer

By Alan ShearerMatch of the Day pundit
Match of the Day

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been Manchester United's player of the season so far, and his goals and sheer presence make him the man they would miss the most right now.

He is 35 and cannot go on forever but United would be crazy not to try to keep the Swedish striker for another season because he has shown he still has such a lot to offer.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Ibrahimovic joined United on a free transfer in July 2016 after leaving Paris St-Germain. He has played in 37 of their 42 games in all competitions this season, featuring in more matches than any other Premier League player.

As well as his 24 goals in 37 games for United, a big part of Ibrahimovic's impact is the effect he has had on his team-mates.

His influence has been compared with that of Old Trafford legend Eric Cantona - and I can understand why.

We know Ibrahimovic has got fantastic individual ability, but his charisma and the way he carries himself has seen him become the team's talisman.

Eric Cantona: When Football Focus met 'King Eric'

It must be brilliant for United's young players - like Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard - to be around someone with Ibrahimovic's appetite, energy and desire.

They can learn some things from him on the pitch during games, of course, but working with him every day and seeing his attitude in training and the dressing room will be invaluable experience for them.

That is another reason for United to keep him, although even if he does stay I am pretty certain they will still go for a big-hitter in the summer to either play with him up front, or compete for his place.

Goals matter more than minutes played

Zlatan Ibrahimovic trophies
Between 2004 and 2011, Ibrahimovic won a league title every season with Ajax, Juventus, Inter and Barcelona, and he added four more titles from 2013-16 while playing in France for Paris St-Germain. His Community Shield win with United kept up his record of winning silverware with every club he has played for.

Ibrahimovic's mentality has not changed despite everything he has done in his career - he is still determined to be the best.

He has played in the vast majority of United's games this season, which for someone his age is a superb achievement - in all competitions, Leicester's Wes Morgan is the only Premier League player to play more minutes.

It is not as if Ibrahimovic is taking it easy, either.

His languid style means it does not always look as if he is doing a lot of running during games, but he typically covers 9km every 90 minutes - the same distance per match as a striker as hard-working as Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez, for example.

All of that helps to show Ibrahimovic's hunger, and also demonstrates he is still a supreme athlete.

However, both of those statistics would be overlooked if he was not scoring goals too. They are the really impressive thing and set him apart from other 35-year-old footballers.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
With 15 Premier League goals, Ibrahimovic is the only player aged 35 or older in Europe's big five leagues to be in double figures for goals in 2016-17. Atletic Bilbao striker Aritz Aduiriz, 36, and Real Betis forward Ruben Castro, 35, are in joint-second place in the veterans' scoring charts with eight goals each in La Liga.

They have made a big difference for United too. His goal against Blackburn in the FA Cup on Sunday was his ninth winner in all competitions this season.

Altogether his goals have earned United 11 points in the Premier League alone - a joint league high for 2016-17 with Chelsea's Diego Costa.

Mourinho knows he has a player who needs feeding

I played in the Premier League until I was almost 36 and to compete at that age you need to have a hunger in training, not just want to keep playing more games.

On a day-to-day basis you have to keep pushing yourself. Your body is taking more and more punishment and it becomes harder and harder to get through it.

You need to have huge willpower, but you also need a manager who understands what you need - when you need a rest, and when you do and don't need to train.

Ibrahimovic has that in Jose Mourinho, which is great, but he still has to go out and do the business on the pitch.

Mourinho has helped him there too because he knows he has a player who needs feeding, and their style of play does precisely that.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic shots for Manchester United in the Premier League in 2016-17
From the top five European leagues (England, Germany, France, Italy and Spain), only Roma's Edin Dzeko has had more shots (131) than Ibrahimovic in league games this season. In the Premier League, Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez (91) and Tottenham's Christian Eriksen (90) are ranked second and third for most efforts at goal.

The key for United is getting the ball up to Ibrahimovic, then getting players around him and running beyond him to deliver it into the box.

They were not quite managing it earlier in the season but now they have found a way of making it work that suits Ibrahimovic and, more importantly, the team.

Leading scorers in all competitions - players from Europe's top five leagues
1. Edinson Cavani (Paris St-Germain, France)13134
2. Lionel Messi (Barcelona, Spain)15034
3. Edin Dzeko (Roma, Italy)16629
4. Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon, France)8326
5. Luis Suarez (Barcelona, Spain)11025
6. Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Germany)12225
7. Radamel Falcao (Monaco, France)8324
8. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Man Utd, England)13824
Includes league, domestic cups and European competition

If you give Ibrahimovic chances, the rest is up to him. United have been doing the first bit - he has had more shots at goal this season than any other Premier League player.

Then of course his ability takes over, which is why he is delivering the goods.

Can Saints stop Ibrahimovic this time?

Ibrahimovic has already been a winner at Wembley this season, when his goal against Leicester clinched the Community Shield.

On Sunday he will get the chance to get his hands on more silverware when his side play Southampton in the EFL Cup final (16:30 GMT kick-off), but United will not be taking success for granted.

Not many people gave Southampton a chance over two legs against Liverpool in the semi-finals and I think they have enough going forward to cause United problems.

It will be a blow for United if Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Michael Carrick miss the game through injury, as Mourinho fears, but United will still rightly go into the game as favourites.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores against Southampton at Old Trafford in August
Ibrahimovic met a Wayne Rooney cross to head home United's first goal in their win over Southampton. He added a second goal from the penalty spot.

Ibrahimovic's form obviously marks him out as their danger man, and he has already scored twice against Saints this season when he got off the mark at Old Trafford with both goals in a United win in August.

So Southampton will know how big a threat he is when the ball comes into their box - what might decide the game is whether they can stop him this time.

Alan Shearer was speaking to BBC Sport's Chris Bevan.

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