The case against Zlatan’s reintegration
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’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.
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.
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.