January 31, 2011 2 Comments
2004. There is a party atmosphere in the Amsterdam Arena as Ajax are cruising to a victory over NAC Breda. The ball is played into their gangly young striker with his back to goal, surrounded by defenders. His first touch is poor, taking it towards an onrushing defender. However he manages to outmuscle the defender in the tackle and glide forward, expertly feigning a shot to send two defenders the wrong way. Then he starts to have fun. At the edge of the box, still the whole of the Breda defence to beat he feigns again with his left and moves off at lightning speed on his right. The ball seems to have come under his irrepressible spell as he jinks and dances through the box. An island of cool amongst a sea of chaos he feigns a shot on his right, calmly shifts the ball onto his left and slots the ball in for an astounding individual goal. This is the magic of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Since that remarkable goal Ibra has regularly produce such moments of magic on an incredible march of seven league titles in seven seasons with four different clubs. It seems strange then, that he still divides opinion, attracting as much criticism as adulation.
With Ibra it seems to be an issue of personality, both on and off the pitch. On the pitch he is criticized for his supreme laziness. Critics observe he only emerges into the game when it most suits him, unwilling to sacrifice himself for the ‘greater good’ of the team. However this completely misses the point. Ibrahimovic is not very good at defending, so why should he waste his energy bustling around a la Carlos Tevez, when he could save that energy to do his job- win games. However the problem with this apparent sloth is more that it doesn’t endear Ibra to people. It portrays an arrogance, an ego that is very hard to like, no matter how talented the individual. There is no denying, Ibrahimovic is an arrogant guy and his strange, maverick personality has lead to many problems in his career. He often antagonises teammates for no apparent reason other than his own boredom, with bizarre incidents such as when footage emerged of him karate kicking his Milan teammate Rodney Strasser or when Van der Vaart claimed he deliberately injured him in an international friendly (which led to his departure from Ajax). The fact he seemed to think Pep Guardiola was ‘scared of’ him is evidence that his distinct personality was a major reason for him leaving Barcelona.
While it has caused him some trouble, this exuberant individualism, a throwback to the likes of Chinaglia and Best, it is one of the qualities that makes him so fascinating. The modern football landscape often seems devoid of personality, but Ibra refutes that claim. His gigantic ego and confidence are part of what makes him such a good player as well. In many ways his contradictory and incomprehensible personality defines the way he plays. Tall and strong and in the exact same moment quick and agile, both a bull and a ballerina. It is this all round ability that makes him such a fearsome opponent. He has the physicality and directness to demolish teams, the searing pace to get in behind them and the sheer skill to make goals out of nothing. Sometimes he is defined as a poacher but this couldn’t be further from the truth, his all round hold up play is excellent, expertly bringing other players into the game or picking a pass. And obviously his goalscoring record is phenomenal but not in the simple numbers, which are impressive (broadly averaging a goal every other game in his career), but rather in the incredible range of goals he scores. Acrobatic volleys, simple tap ins, spectacular long range efforts, powerful headers he is both a great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals. With Milan this year he appears to have reached his zenith, leading a decent team to the top of Serie A with 8 assists and 13 goals in just 21 matches, producing countless moments of Ibra magic. It is often said Ronaldo and Messi are on a different planet, but in terms of modern attackers they’re not too far away from Planet Zlatan.
The player has his faults. He can be temperamental, disinterested and infuriatingly anonymous. But they come as part of the Ibrahimovic package and it is some package. At his best he is a literally unstoppable attacking force, one of only a few players who can consistently produce moments of pure inspiration. No matter his detractors they cannot take away his incredible success. Surely no player has ever done what he seems on course to and win eight league titles in eight seasons with five different clubs. He has an unlimited capacity to dazzle and annoy, enthral and infuriate all at once. To watch Ibrahimovic is to be spellbound.
by Ryan Murphy