It's true: AC Milan and Sweden forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic is losing his passion for the beautiful game. He recently announced to Italian sports paper il Corriere dello Sport “I am starting to become tired of football and am no longer motivated like before…Football is no longer burning inside me like back in the days.”
This might seem incomprehensible to fans like you and I, but given some of the unwarranted criticism he has received over the years, it’s not so difficult to understand. Over the following pages, I’ve exposed some of the myths surrounding the enigmatic striker, and explained why I don’t think Ibra should be hanging up his boots just yet.
Much of the criticism aimed at the Swede seems to be based on information that, if it were ever accurate, became obsolete some years ago. A case in point is the accusation that Ibrahimovic is a selfish player.
In 2009, legendary Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi described him as a “great soloist,” but questioned his ability to function within a team unit. The claim may have had some relevance when Ibrahimovic first arrived in Serie A, but Zlatan’s play has developed hugely since then. The process really began under Fabio Capello at Juventus, where after a successful first season as a central striker, his role was changed and he was asked to bring other players into the game more. Whilst at Inter in the 2007-08 season the benefits were already clear to see, as he had the third-highest assist total in the Italian Serie A with nine, an achievement he surpassed last season with their Milan rivals AC, this time laying on 11 goals for teammates.
Conventional wisdom might still consider him a selfish player, but the facts prove otherwise, and even some of Ibrahimovic’s harshest critics have been won over. Last season, reporters were told that, "He collaborates in the defensive phase and doesn't just exploit his technical and physical ability in attack, but moves in time with the team." By whom? Arrigo Sacchi.
This idea has mainly been disseminated by British journalists focused solely on the Champions League and, in particular, games against English clubs. In this regard, some criticism is certainly justified. Indeed, Ibrahimovic has netted just twice in 13 games against Premier League opponents—not including his goal for Sweden against an England national team composed almost entirely of EPL players in 2004. But writing Ibrahimovic off on the basis of a baker’s dozen of games does him a huge disservice.
Firstly, Zlatan has repeatedly proven his abilities against Europe’s top clubs at domestic level. Secondly, how “big” a game is does not solely depend on the opposition, but also the context.
Take for example his two goals for Inter after coming on as a substitute against Parma in the final game of the 2007-08 Serie A season. After several weeks out through injury, Ibrahimovic turned the match in the second half and secured the title for the Nerazzurri.
He is also something of a derby-game expert. In 2007 Ibrahimovic scored the winner for Inter in a 2-1 victory over AC, a feat he repeated in this season’s Supercoppa, but this time for the Rossoneri. Add to that a match-winning penalty he had won himself against the same opposition last season, and the “big-game flop” argument doesn’t look so watertight.
If there’s a bigger match in European football than the Milan derby, it’s probably Barcelona against Real Madrid. In his first Clásico, Ibrahimovic sealed victory for his new club with a beautiful sidefoot volley just five minutes after coming off the bench. That alone is normally enough to assure club legend status at the Camp Nou, something Ibra never really achieved. But more on that later.
Coming back to that record against English clubs, Ibrahimovic finally broke his duck when he scored twice against Arsenal at the Emirates for the Catalan side in the 2009-10 Champions League quarter-final first leg. Another Barcelona player had received similar criticism the previous season for being a “bottler” against English teams, having, like Zlatan, gone ten scoreless games against such opposition. You don’t hear so much criticism of Lionel Messi these days, though.
Some of the sternest criticism aimed at Ibrahimovic came during and shortly after his season with Barcelona, which is almost universally described in the media and amongst fans as, at best, “unsuccessful.” But again, the facts tell a different story.
Many complained that Zlatan didn’t fit in with the blaugrana style of play. I would argue that this is simply untrue. There is no doubt about his aerial ability, but he is also willing to drift into various positions in the forward line, with an excellent first touch and a good eye for the killer pass Barca so often require to break down opponents who sit deep in their own half. Thus, he was theoretically a better option than the pace merchant he replaced, Samuel Eto’o. Perhaps the problems that did occur were rather caused by Pep Guardiola’s insistence that Ibrahimovic offered a “Plan B,” someone to aim crosses at should the celebrated give-and-go of tiki-taka and the central “false nine” role ever prove ineffective. It would not have been the first time that a talented player’s abilities were misused purely because he also happened to be tall.
Whether Ibrahimovic performed to his very best at Barcelona, whether he was correctly used and whether he was worth the massive €69 million transfer fee paid for his services are legitimate questions. But regardless of personal opinions, the stats remain: 16 goals in La Liga in 23 starts (six sub appearances).
For the record, David Villa’s universally praised tally in his first season at Camp Nou was in fact a less impressive 18 in 32 (plus two games off the bench). But Villa brought more to the team, right? Not necessarily. Zlatan laid on seven league goals for teammates, Villa five. “But what about the Champions League?!” the doubters cry. What about four goals and two assists in nine starts in 2009-10, compared to four goals and one assist in 12 games from Villa the following season?
Add to that the La Liga title, two Supercopas de España, a UEFA Super Cup, a FIFA Club World Cup and that winning goal in El Clásico. If Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a flop at Barcelona, Emile Heskey must be the deadliest striker in the history of English football.
This point mainly comes down to where you draw the line between arrogance and confidence. There is little doubt that Ibrahimovic thinks highly of himself, but given his natural ability and some of the career statistics that I’ve already reported—more of those to come by the way—there’s a case to be made that this perceived arrogance is really justified self-belief. Take Ibra’s infamous comment that, “what [Norwegian striker John] Carew does with a football, I can do with an orange.” It sounds ridiculous, but take a look at the videos on this page—and here—before you make your mind up.
He may be a controversial figure both on the pitch and in training, but Zlatan’s record speaks for itself. He has won the domestic title eight years in a row, across three countries—two of those with Juventus have since been rescinded due to the Calciopoli scandal in which Ibrahimovic was blameless—as well as a number of other team honours and individual awards, including twice being named Serie A Footballer of the Year. He has been one of the most consistently successful players in Europe for almost a decade, and could yet add another three major trophies to his cabinet this season. What's more, with nine goals in 11 games for AC Milan so far in this campaign, any psychological doubts he may be having about his career have not been evident on the pitch. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will always receive criticism for his perceived failings as a player and a person, but he also has some pretty loyal fans—how many other footballers have had songs recorded about them by children? (see video)
Is he as good as he says he is, or should he give up the game for good? Let me know what you think below.