Arsene Wenger has always had a shrewd way of operating in terms of transfers and has a keen eye for developing young talent. But he’s made quite a few blunders in his managerial career at Arsenal. Whether it was due to the financial limitations brought upon the club by the significant development costs of the new stadium, or just a lack of willingness to go ahead with a deal, Wenger has missed out on world-class talent in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Zlatan Ibrahimovic amongst a host of others.
An opportunity of such magnitude has the capability to transform a portion of a club’s future. As Manchester United’s Class of 92 began disintegrating and moving past their peak, Sir Alex Ferguson stocked his squad up with England’s best attacking youngster in Wayne Rooney and a Portuguese with world class talent, Ronaldo.
Similarly, if the Swedish icon had indeed signed with Arsenal when the opportunity arose in 2000, Arsenal could have had a different history timeline. Here are a few alternative and hypothetical scenarios that could have been true:
#1 Fallout over the lack of games
It’s hard to picture a scenario in which Ibrahimovic wouldn’t be the first choice striker at a club. Ever since his first year at Ajax, he has established himself as the striker up front. But at the start of the century, Arsenal were the English heavyweights alongside Manchester United.
And in order to maintain the level, Arsene Wenger had signed Arsenal legend, Thierry Henry a year ago. With Thierry Henry hitting the ground running immediately and with the presence of Dennis Bergkamp in the team, a breakthrough would have been particularly tough for the Swede.
If Zlatan could reject Arsene Wenger because he was asked to join for a trial, it would be particularly hard for him to sit outside the first team or even on loan. Hence, due to the Swede’s immense ego and arrogance, it would have lead to a fallout.
What if the brilliance of Zlatan was too good to be kept on the bench or as a squad player? What if the mercurial forward took away Bergkamp’s starting role right behind Henry to play up front alongside Henry?
A silky smooth and magisterial player in the form of Henry along with the towering and prolific Zlatan would be a deadly sight to behold. Wenger has been a staunch follower of formations featuring just one striker but Zlatan and Henry together would be a good reason to alter the tactics.
In this scenario, Arsenal would have retained all the strength and in fact, would have been even more powerful in their run as ‘The Invincibles’ during the 2003-04 season.
#3 Arrival in Madrid as a Galactico
Zlatan has never been loyal to a single club, regardless of the emotions attached to a couple like Malmo and AC Milan. Having graced the Premier League with his talent and four years into his five-year Arsenal contract, Arsenal would be willing to let go of his services a year earlier before Zlatan could enforce the Bosman rule and leave on a free. The obvious next destination – Real Madrid.
Under Florentino Perez’s first tenure as President, Real Madrid had undertaken a route to purchase some of the best players on the planet for luxurious amounts. The ‘Galacticos’ famously won the 2003 Champions League thanks to Zidane’s spectacular volley against Bayer Leverkusen in the finals.
But the triumph was succeeded with the sacking of the manager, Vicente Del Bosque and a barren year followed. In 2004, although not the biggest transfer statement, Real acquired the services of Michael Owen from Liverpool due to his prolific years at the Merseyside club.
If Arsenal had just gone unbeaten the entire season with Ibrahimovic lighting up the Highbury, Real would have come calling for his signature instead of Owen’s. Owen was a dramatic bust in the Spanish capital, but Zlatan would have lived the life of a Galactico on and off the pitch as can be expected.
Perez’s presidency and the Galactico era ended in 2006 after a dismal couple of years, but the presence of Zlatan could have extended both.
#4 La Decima and/or Ballon d'Or Nominee?
For all the league titles and domestic success Ibrahimovic has achieved, success at the continental stage has remained elusive. The Swedish striker has won numerous domestic titles including leagues and cups, but Ibrahimovic has zero Champions league or even Europa league titles in the last decade and a half.
He transferred to Barcelona at the time where they were the best in the world, but instead, his former side, Inter Milan won the Champions League. The time for European success is practically over for Zlatan unless Manchester United now win the Europa League this season.
In an alternate scenario, Zlatan would have had the perfect platform with Real Madrid to achieve European success. With nine titles at that time, Madrid and Zlatan would have a real shot at winning La Decima. Although this is a very optimistic projection, club success at a European level could have sent Zlatan’s name in the top five players category. If not the ultimate personal glory, he could have at the least been a nominee for the Ballon D’Or award at the final stages.
Zlatan likes being the centre of attention in any team. Just consider PSG as the perfect example, he commanded the respect and was the most influential team member, for whom Laurent Blanc moved Edinson Cavani out wide.
On the other hand, getting played out wide to accommodate Messi in the centre initiated the momentous differences between Guardiola and Ibrahimovic at Barcelona. So the arrival of Ronaldo at Madrid would have curtailed his time in Spain. Regardless of the lethal combination that would have been a possibility at Madrid, Ronaldo’s stature as the world’s best player would take the limelight away from Zlatan, resulting in a move to Italy.
Here, it would be difficult to say which of the Milan clubs or even Juventus, after the corruption scandal, would be the destination for Zlatan. His preference after successful campaigns at all three clubs is now AC Milan.
He could have been an influential figure in the revival of Juventus back from Serie B, be a part of the Mourinho squad at Inter that won the Champions League or carry out his real life trajectory at AC Milan followed by PSG.
Regardless of the Italian destination, personal and club success would follow. A fitting end, not only in the context of this hypothetical scenario but also in his real life, seems to lie in New York or Los Angeles, bringing new life into football in America and take the next step with his clothing brand, A-Z.
We can only ponder the answers to the question of what if Zlatan started out his career in the Premier League instead of finishing in it.