This season has hardly started in ideal fashion for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paris Saint-Germain. Despite winning two matches and drawing the other two out of four played, an improvement on the start to last season’s title winning campaign, the French champions are struggling to look convincing.
Laurent Blanc’s side are yet to hit top gear and have been fortuitous in some of their early victories against Nantes and Guingamp, while looking frustrated against both Montpellier and Ajaccio. Ibrahimovic in particular has appeared discontented as the team take their time to adapt to their new coach’s methods and new strike partner Edinson Cavani gets used to playing alongside the Swede.
Compared to last season, PSG are stronger and have better overall depth this time around. In theory, this means that Ibrahimovic is in a better position than last term and will not have the added burden of shouldering sole responsibilities for the team’s fortunes this year.
But how does last season’s 30-goal top scorer improve on the best Ligue 1 goal haul since Jean-Pierre Papin’s 1989-90 total for Marseille?
Last season, the 31-year-old demonstrated how adept he has become at being able to lay chances on for his teammates with seven assists in Le Championnat (stats via Ligue1.com). He added a further seven in the Champions League in just nine matches played, according to UEFA.com. A midseason switch from 18 to 10 in his shirt numbering also perhaps denoted the future evolution in his PSG role.
It became obvious last term that the side from the French capital needed a natural striker to play alongside Ibrahimovic, not just to ease the pressure on the towering Swede, but also to enable him to drop back behind a predatory goalscorer. Ibra’s all-round ability allowed him to contribute in terms of goals and assists, but the pressure was too much, and the talismanic striker was unable to focus on one specific role.
Turning 32 in October, focusing on one function in particular is of paramount importance for Ibrahimovic. He is not getting any younger, and last season’s phenomenal feats will be harder to reproduce one year later, with a natural decrease in physical attributes likely to start within the next 12 months.
PSG’s signing of Cavani has given the former AC Milan man the ideal foil with which to complete his switch from the team’s main focal point to one of two. This enables Blanc’s side to play with a more direct style, which we have seen at times already, or to produce intricate and technical build-up while relying on Ibrahimovic’s intelligence to provide the killer ball.
He has already contributed directly to a number of the team's goals so far this season. But in order for him to get even better at PSG, that can now only be measured by his ability to provide Cavani and his other teammates with assists while also managing to continue to score goals regularly himself.
Replicating last season’s massive 30-goal tally is a tall order; in fact both the Uruguayan and AS Monaco’s Radamael Falcao will also likely struggle to top that this year. But halving it and breaking into double figures with assists is well within Ibra’s reach and would represent a good return from his slightly deeper role.
Blanc settling on a preferred formation would help the Swede massively. So far the defending champions have switched between a 4-2-2-2 similar to last season’s system under Carlo Ancelotti and a loose 4-3-3. But while Javier Pastore’s poor form continues to impair the midfield and PSG’s struggles to win games convincingly continue, Ibrahimovic’s productivity will not be as high as expected.
The early signs are good, and even when not at their best, he and PSG are winning games. Now Ibrahimovic has to concentrate on improving his relationship with Cavani as their communication in particular has looked as if it might need attention. So far Ibra has appeared accepting of his role as the more creative of the pair but has shown moments of irritation when passes that appear to be aimed for him have been misinterpreted and intercepted by his single-minded strike partner.
Beating a career high of 30 goals and seven assists is no easy task, and arguably impossible with Cavani now in the side, but Ibrahimovic does not need to repeat least year’s feats to show that he has improved. The ability to provide more chances than he takes, but to still remain clinical, would arguably be far more impressive and beneficial to PSG in the long-term.