The case against Zlatan’s reintegration

September 28, 2017 Tags: Reads 16 comments
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Considering football is a team sport, it is curious how the focus has shifted over time from praising the collective to singling out individuals. Greater access to statistics seems to have exacerbated the trend. Player comparison data, award ceremonies and social media keyboard warriors – the debate has moved to one based on individual meritocracy. Yet, while players drift in and out of form during a season, the team that wins the Premier League will probably be the most balanced in the division. Despite football’s narrative focusing less on the collective, it will always be the most important factor in a team’s ascension to glory.

Which brings us to Zlatan Ibrahimović, the most individualistic individual in modern football. In an era defined by the clash between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan has taken advantage of the social climate to set his name in stone alongside the most talented footballers of the era. His name will long be remembered, if not by the numerous clubs he has played for and won with, then by the teams with whom he clashed and condemned to defeat.

"While players drift in and out of form during a season, the team that wins the Premier League will probably be the most balanced in the division."

Manchester United enjoyed a single season under Ibrahimović’s presence, with the Swede scoring 17 goals in 28 league appearances. He brings plenty to the pitch, dressing room and to the marketing team. The decision to offer the Swede a one-year contract extension, despite the player facing a lengthy recovery from injury, was made with all the aforementioned reasons in mind. From a brand point of view, the decision makes sense; his on-pitch performances and personality mean the decision is not as straight forward as it might seem.

On the pitch, Zlatan is far from past it, even if we do not yet know the long-term impact of that serious knee injury. Last season’s form reflects the contradiction Zlatan demonstrates in the traditional career arc: the Swede scored 250 goals after the age of 30 and only 232 before. Goalscoring trends aside, Ibrahimović was particularly influential in cup competitions last season, making a total 17 appearances across the FA Cup, the EFL Cup and the Europa League, scoring 10 times and laying on five assists.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Zlatan’s return before Christmas means the re-integration of another top class striker into the ranks, alongside Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford, who have all started the season in fine form. It should be a bonus, but there’s also a case against Zlatan, an argument why re-signing the striker could cause more problems than it fixes.

Ibrahimović’s stats from last season are impressive, but analysing Zlatan in hindsight is much easier on the eye than watching him play. There is a theory, espoused by the journalist Gabriele Marcotti among others, that Ibrahimović actually hinders the teams for whom he plays, despite all those goals. It is counterintuitive, as his goals lead to victories, but the Swedish star was far from a universal success in his debut season at the club.

The theory is that because of Ibrahimović’s personality, physicality and style of play, teams boasting the big Swede end up playing everything through him. While there are less talented players to make the sole focus of an attack, Zlatan’s imposing height and physical prowess encourages teams to become one-dimensional. Teams become more direct, with Zlatan using his excellent technical ability to bring the ball under control and wait for supporting runs from his fellow forwards. While the ball reaches Ibra quickly, he is not a direct player. Often dropping deep in search of the ball, making the most of his technical ability, Ibrahimović caused United’s build up play to become increasingly lethargic last season.

This theory is best viewed in practice during two seasons of the striker’s career. In José Mourinho’s debut season at Inter Milan the ugly-but-effective-Mourinho-ball was at the peak of its powers. The style was gritty and compact, with physicality coming from everywhere – Walter Samuel and Iván Córdoba at centre back, to Esteban Cambiasso and Sulley Muntari in midfield. Zlatan’s partnership with up front Adriano – and sometimes the 17-year-old Mario Balotelli – added plenty of muscle.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Inter went on to win the Scudetto that season by 10 points, but the charts encapsulate the Zlatan theory. The Swede finished top scorer with 29 goals over the campaign, but only Balotelli made it into double-figures, with 10, while Adriano chalked up seven. For assists, Ibrahimović again finished top of the pile with nine, followed closely by Maicon and Muntari with seven each. Everything went through the star striker, and he was rewarded for his work with a move to European Champions Barcelona at the end of the campaign.

Mourinho’s team might have been expected to degrade with a star player on the move. On the contrary, the Portuguese manager invested wisely, balancing the squad, especially in attack where the dynamic Diego Milito, Samuel Eto’o, and Wesley Sneijder joined. His team went on to complete the first treble in Inter Milan’s history the following season.

Last season, United played a colossal 64 competitive games due to the team’s involvement in the Europa League, EFL Cup and Premier League. Ibrahimović scored a respectable 28 goals in 45 appearances across all competitions. Yet, only Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan – both 11 – and Juan Mata on 10 also made it into double figures. United’s biggest weakness last season was scoring, especially against weaker opposition. It was exactly where Zlatan became the problem.

United’s squad was notable for its insecurity in defence and Mourinho focussed on plugging the gap by ensuring his wide midfielders tracked back in support. With Ibrahimović the sole striker, he often dropped deep waiting for midfielders to support, only to find reinforcements slowly arriving from defensive duties. Mourinho’s team became easy to defend against because the attack was led by a laborious striker with little, or delayed, support from midfield. There was little penetration and opposition defences had time to reorganise before United reached the final third.

The case against Zlatan was hard to see last season as there was little other option than to play the forward, despite the deficiencies he created. Yet, United’s development this season emphasises the attacking speed and dynamism that was missing under the Swede.

Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford

This year, with Nemanja Matić brought in to protect the defence, Mourinho’s midfielders have noticeably more freedom to get further up the pitch. There is a trade-off – Mourinho has sacrificed superior hold up play with Romelu Lukaku leading the line instead of Ibrahimović, but his team’s hugely improved attacking fluidity is the reward. The Belgian is much more adept at running into the channels and pulling opposition defences out of shape.

Where Zlatan is deployed as the team’s sole striker, goals and assists seem hard toil. It is, instead, all about Ibra. So far this season, after eight competitive fixtures – ignoring the Super Cup and Community Shield – Lukaku has led the line with seven goals, while Martial and Rashford have four and five respectively, despite operating a job-share arrangement. In assists, Mkhitaryan leads the way on five since finding home in a floating role behind Lukaku, while Jessie Lingard, despite rarely featuring, has three, and Paul Pogba, Rashford and Martial all have two.

The picture is in contrast to last season, where players were criticised for not contributing in front of goal. There has been an improvement across the board and the players’ body language seems much more comfortable. Ibrahimović’s style was an inhibiting factor.

Which is why the striker’s rehabilitation may be troublesome. The team is firing on all cylinders, scoring goals and keeping a water-tight defence. Ibrahimović is battling to get back into Mourinho’s first team squad, but having graciously given up the number 9 jersey to Lukaku, he has also given up an automatic place in the side. Will he now become an impact sub, or become a drag on United’s goalscoring?

The Swede has now settled on the number 10 shirt; there is hope that Zlatan will exit Old Trafford next May with a little more grace and a little less frustration than the last player to don the same number.


Reed - September 28, 2017 Reply

WIth Zlatan taking on the #10 shirt, I wonder…. could Zlatan play in that roaming #10 role behind Lukaku against the right opponents (in Mkhi’s place)? He could still be the focal point of the attack, and would immediately have Big Rom available making runs ahead of him. He could also be the player arriving later into the box to utilize his finishing. We still wouldn’t be as quick or fluid as with Mkhi, but I’d trust Zlatan all day to receive the ball under pressure, turn a center back or defensive midfielder, and release Lukaku.

Allen heald - September 29, 2017 Reply

Rubbish! Zlatan can adapt better than any player I know. He is not a one dimensional player like you try to make out. As far as goal scorers last year, compare that to the year before and tell me how many made it into double figures. We had a abysmal low scoring year. If Fellaini can play up alongside Lakaku you can bet your bottom dollar that Zlatan can play far better. Defenses were petrified of facing Zlatan and defenses are now scared to death of facing Lakaku, so just imagine them both terrorizing defenses whether it be Chelsea, City or Arsenal.

Wardy - September 29, 2017 Reply

I love Ibra, but this needed to be said. Thank you.

OmbongiDVD - September 29, 2017 Reply

Before we judge him, lets wait and see if he comes back fit and firing. For fucks sake he drove us to titles we won last season and with Lukaku having question marks around his impact against big sides, Zlattan has it all; great ball control, brilliant hold up play, assists and popping up with winning goals in important games (against Leicester in the shield, against soton in EFL and those goals in the UEL). Mou may also be tempted to employ a 3-5-2 formation with Zlattan alongside Lukaku in attack, I think we’d still be frightening to defend against although we will have to sacrifice the Mata for Young/Valencia and Martial/Rashford for maybe shaw/blind/darmian on the wingback roles. In Mid we could use Matic and Pogba with Micki or Mata playing further ahead just behind The frontmen

Denton Davey - September 29, 2017 Reply

“While the ball reaches Ibra quickly, he is not a direct player. Often dropping deep in search of the ball, making the most of his technical ability, Ibrahimović caused United’s build up play to become increasingly lethargic last season.”

Key point.

But, on the other hand, does Zlatan’s return NECESSARILY mean that he can be/should be a starter ?

The role that I would envision for Zlatan would be the one that Fellaini occupies – a mid-/late-game substitute who would get on the pitch to add presence and skill and height against a team that has parked-the-bus.

Using the big guy in that way would make the most of his positive attributes – height, skill, and presence – while not being hamstrung by his negative attribute of slow foot-speed, contributing to unbalanced team-play. Using the big guy in this way would also be a way of countering his tendency to go walkabout, wandering into midfield looking for the ball.

Jo$e has usually managed by giving players very, very defined roles – will he do so with Zlatan ? Will Zlatan follow Jo$e’s orders ?

Magnus Henderson - September 29, 2017 Reply

I completely agree. Zlatan is still a very useful player to have around the squad, without doubt. The problem in my opinion is whether someone as arrogant and self-assured as Ibra can settle for not being the main man in the team. In his interviews after re-signing for United he talked with his usual confidence and claimed that ‘he upgraded his number from 9 to 10’. I worry that his personality and Mourinho’s clear admiration for the player could end up hindering United with ‘special privileges’, in a similar way to Rooney under Van Gaal and Moyes’ tenures.

Sam - September 29, 2017 Reply

Great read. And great comments by Reed and Denton. I 100% agree that Zlatan could start alongside Lukaku as a number 10 and be extremely effective. I think it could only help to have both perennial goalscorers on the pitch at the same time.

And he could also be used as an improvement over Fellaini as a late sub. I’m not one to hate on what Fellaini brings either but come on if it’s Ibra or Fellaini. Who the hell would take Fellaini haha.

I feel like Ibra will be used more as a starter in cups and super sub in EPL. As good as he is, he is still 36. So saving Ibra’s minutes isn’t a bad idea

Steve Hogan - September 30, 2017 Reply

This is a nice problem to have. Trust in Mou to get the mix right, the ego’s managed and team selection at the right moment. We’re better for having Zlatan back whilst hearing the well made points in the article.

Mike - September 30, 2017 Reply

Like someone commented above, Zlatan in the Fellini role will be ideal. Great sub to have in big games when we are drawing or behind. But I have a sneaking suspicion he will score some important goals this year ala Bruce vs Sheffield W???

subterranean steve - October 1, 2017 Reply

In a press conference this week, Mourinho said that he couldn’t give Lukaku a rest until Zlatan was back. He didn’t want to shift Rashford, so the inference is that the Swede would step into the no.9 role. Are we about to see the battle of the alpha males for supremacy or will they peacefully co-exist? It’s hard to imagine Lukaku wanting much of a rest. At the same time would Zlatan sign a new contract in order to be Lukaku’s understudy or at best his job-sharer, in the mode of Rashford/Martial? Would Zlatan see himself as plan B, in a Fellaini role?

Mourinho is not one for tinkering with a successful formula so it will be interesting to see how he incorporates Zlatan back into the team without upsetting the status quo. Will there be a natural role for him or will he be shoe-horned in?

An interesting time ahead.

subterranean steve - October 1, 2017 Reply

Zlatan is coming back from a serious injury and will be 37 on Tuesday. It’s hard to see him being too central to Mourinho’s plans. He might prioritise his use in the Champions League, much more than in the Premier League.

Denton Davey - October 1, 2017 Reply

Agreed. An “insurance policy” and PlanB.

Jo$e is all about winning – NOW. It’s why he’s had issues with kids like Tony Martial and Luke Shaw – just like he had no time for Lukaku and De Bruyne at CSKALondon. These guys had to go elsewhere to learn their trade and mature as professionals. Same goes for Fosu-Mensah and Tuanzebe, both look the real deal but still callow. Seen in this way, Marcus Rashford’s elevation into one of the first-names-on-the-team-sheet is very much an exception while Lindelof’s “education” is much more in tune with Jo$e’s attitude to “youth”. Similarly, the “renaissance” of AshleyBloodyYoung, AV25 and Fellaini speaks volumes about Jo$e’s demand that players subordinate themselves to HIS concept of team-concept.
With Jo$e, it’s very much “my way or the highway”.

Seen that way, it’s going to be fascinating how Zlatan copes with this swan-song.

Denton Davey - October 1, 2017 Reply

“Similarly, the “renaissance” of AshleyBloodyYoung, AV25 and Fellaini speaks volumes about Jo$e’s demand that players subordinate themselves to HIS concept of team-concept”

I should have included MrJones and BigManSmalling in that group of guys we all thought were going to be ushered out the door by Jo$e.
With Jo$e, it’s very much “my way or the highway”.

Mohamee Aweys - October 4, 2017 Reply

I think Zlatan will play an important role but I don’t think Mourinho will play him purely because of he is Zlatan. Do you guys remember the game against Chelsea last season at home, the 2-0 win? If Mou can bench fit and firing Zlatan and play Rashford, do you really think he can’t when he is getting back from a serious knee injury? Come on guys, Trust Mou, he has a plan and he knew about this and must have worked on about it.

StevieMcCoey - October 4, 2017 Reply

Good article but I think the key part you have raised in your argument for the new reinvigorated attack (supporting cast freed up by Matić) also needs to be factored into last years analysis & questioning of Zlatan. With Zlatan’s undoubted positional intelligence, hold up play & technical ability aligned with the supporting attackers being free to support him in a much better fashion this season I think he will only thrive. The Matić factor is key – last season if we had lost Pogba for a long period it would have been disastrous, now we can say yeah its bad but we still have control through Matić.
As pointed out previously though – Lukaku v Zlatan or Lukaku & Zlatan decisions are nice problem to have.

Jade Rickerts - October 4, 2017 Reply

Am I the only one who remembers Zlatan’s poor goal conversion rate last season? That game against Burnley where he had like a million shots and couldn’t really bury it. Lukaku is far more clinical. And I think Martial and Rashford are too. Well at least this season.

All I really hope is that Zlatan is back to give some of the players a rest when needed or when there is an injury crisis upfront. If he is back to be the big man on campus again, and Jose lets him by playing him over say Rashford and Martial, United will have big problems. I hope Zlatan is humble enough to accept a lesser role at the club and try to help the team win trophies. Maybe the Champions League, because its the last trophy Zlatan still needs in his trophy cabinet.

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