Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been making headlines for years now in a career that has been full of controversy. Whilst a lot of these headlines are created by Zlatan himself with an outlandish quote or an obnoxious reply, at the age of 39, Ibrahimovic is still managing to write an awful lot of headlines through his performances on the pitch too. With his team, AC Milan, currently leading the Serie A, at the time of writing, and Zlatan massively amongst the goals, it feels like Zlatan is better than ever, so we thought we’d try and look into this a little.
Many assumed that when Zlatan headed over to the USA to play for LA Galaxy, his career would gradually wind down. After all, the MLS has now become almost synonymous with veteran stars gently stepping aside to finish their careers over in America, so why should the Swede be any different? We couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only did Zlatan absolutely dominate the league during his time in LA, but he did so to such an extent that he felt he still had more to give in Europe’s top leagues. His incredible recovery from a potentially career ending knee injury at Manchester United should have been the first indicator that Zlatan just isn’t normal. Even in the current campaign, the striker has missed 2 games due to testing g positive for Covid-19, yet still finds himself as the top scorer in the league, even clear of Cristiano Ronaldo. Clearly a big fan of hyperbole, Zlatan has frequently referred to himself as a ‘lion’ or a ‘god’, but the longer his career goes on at this level, the more realistic those two claims seem.
Currently boasting 10 goals in Serie A in just 6 starts, Ibrahimovic has been finding the net with the same incredible regularity that he has throughout his career, yet, at 39 years of age, clearly his body cannot boast the same conditioning that it once did, so has Zlatan changed his game to cater to this? This is something that the Swede alluded to recently in an interview with BBC Sport, where he admitted that “I’m not running like I ran before; I’m running more intelligent now”. So clearly Zlatan has had to adapt his game in order to stay at the top of it.
It’s all well and good hearing it from the man himself, but we thought it would be interesting to delve into just how he has changed his game to suit his advancing years. The most obvious place to start would be to see how his involvement in game has changed in terms of frequency. If your body is not what it used to be, then you might find it hard to be as involved and keep up with the intensity, so the smart thing to do would be to limit your involvement to where you can be most effective. On the face of it, this is what Zlatan has done, averaging 52 touches per game compared to 61.3 back in his time at PSG in the 2014/2015 season. By limiting his game to his strengths, Zlatan has focused more on the attacking side of it and this is also backed up by the fact that so far this season he has averaged 1.2 ball recoveries per game, whereas in the 14/15 season at PSG and even the 16/17 season at Manchester United, he was averaging 2 per 90 mins.
The other side of limiting your defensive involvement in a team is increasing your attacking output and this is also evidenced in the fact that Zlatan is currently averaging 2.6 offsides per game, compared to 1.2 and 1.4 in the seasons at PSG and United respectively. Clearly Ibrahimovic is focusing on breaking through Serie A defences more than winning the ball back for his team, however, it could also be said that the increased number of offsides shows that his timing still leaves a little bit to be desired. An argument could be made that this is because he feels the need to time his run earlier due to his diminishing pace.
Furthermore, this attack minded theme continues when you consider some other stats too, such as passes attempted. So far in Serie A this season, Zlatan has attempted 36.3 passes per game, compared to 45.3 in his time at PSG. It seems that Ibrahimovic has made a real effort to specialise his game to putting the ball in the net, rather than helping to build or link up attacks. Another interesting statistic that we noticed was the number of headed goals that Zlatan has managed in Milan, averaging 0.6 per game, compared to 0.1 and 0.2 in those seasons at PSG and United respectively. Again, this would seem to be a sensible tactic, as rather than looking to beat the offside trap or dribble past defenders, Zlatan is focusing on what he’s best at, finishing his chances. Not only does that mean he is at his most effective, but it also leaves space for his teammates to work with as clearly Ibrahimovic needs tight marking due to being such a handful in the box.
So far, the stats have backed up Ibrahimovic’s claim, he is definitely working smarter not harder, the only potential argument against this would be the fact that he is crossing more than he ever has, averaging 1.4 per game compared to 0.5 at PSG and 0.7 at United. The only real possible explanation for this could be that this is something that Milan as a team rely on, even when Zlatan himself isn’t the target of those crosses. Clearly the Rossoneri feel they have an advantage in the wide areas and frequently try to make use of it as much as they can.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is clearly a man who loves a challenge and it seems that he feeds off people doubting his abilities, something that will bode well as he continues to enter the twilight of his career. Whether he can keep this unbelievably consistency up remains to be seen but at 39 years old, he is showing that age can be an advantage and not a hindrance.
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