Everton boss Ronald Koeman says Zlatan Ibrahimovic is “still one of the best” as he prepares to face Manchester United on Tuesday but acknowledged he found the striker “difficult” when managing him at Ajax.
Ibrahimovic is set to return to the United side at Old Trafford after serving a three-match suspension, with the 35-year-old having scored 15 Premier League goals so far in his first ever season in England.
Koeman had managed the former Sweden international at Ajax, helping launch his career after a difficult start to life in the Netherlands, and said he has huge respect for his abilities.
“He is still one of the best and I still admire the boy,” he told reporters. “I know him really well, and he is still showing really well at his age, being still so important for the team and scoring goals, showing he’s still one of the best — I have great respect for him.
“I’m not surprised [by his continued success] because he really has that talent and he’s so strong, and maybe mentally he’s one of the strongest players I know.”
Discussing his experiences managing Ibrahimovic, he said: “He was young and sometimes also difficult!
“Yeah, but, OK, it’s normal. I’m also better now to handle for a coach than when I was 19.
“And he was funny but sometimes difficult because when I was at Ajax we had a lot of young players at that time — [Wesley] Sneijder, [Rafael] van der Vaart, [Nigel] de Jong, [John] Heitinga, Mido, Zlatan. We had really big talents at that time, but all were 19, driving Porsches, driving Ferraris … eh?! New generation.
Asked he had to fine Ibrahimovic a few times, he smiled and said: “We had some really strong talks to him, yes!”“Stories? I tell you about it Wednesday.”
He said it had been beneficial to his career “as a young coach at that time” to deal with Ibrahimovic and added: “I met Zlatan three or four times in the last four or five months, and if we speak about that time, he knows — he knows perfectly — how he was when he was 19 and how he is now.”
Everton will be looking to Romelu Lukaku — the Premier League’s leading scorer with 23 goals so far — to deliver against United after he struggled to make an impact in the 3-1 derby defeat to Liverpool at the weekend.
Koeman was reluctant to draw comparisons between Lukaku and Ibrahimovic but said the Belgium international had similar mental strength.
“You can’t compare a 23-year-old boy with Zlatan now,” he said. “Zlatan makes those steps through his whole career, and the mental way, I don’t have any doubt about Rom in that case.
“He really is that player who thinks a lot about football and he’s really honest in his performances. Rom knows by himself when it’s good and when it isn’t good — like last Saturday, he was not performing like he can do — and what the team needs.”