The Enigma Of Ibra

by David Dickson

Zlatan Ibrahimovic cost Barcelona a small fortune when he joined them last summer, and David Dickson looks closely at a man constantly dividing the opinions of football fan.


With the ever-presence of Opta in all its glory in 2010, anecdotal statistics seem to have become commonplace in football journalism. Numerous Twitter feeds regularly spew out information on what a player does or doesn’t do, when and how often they do it, and whereabouts. However, even @optajoe would agree, every unusual statistic should be treated with some degree of cynicism and not used as a yardstick to make a decision about a player one way or another. Especially when that player divides opinion as much as one Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The astonishing fact revealed by @sidlowe that Ibrahimovic ran only forty metres more than his own goalkeeper, Victor Valdes, during Barcelona’s 3-1 to Inter Milan at the San Siro on Tuesday just adds fuel to the fire that’s nurtured by those who believe the Swedish striker is lazy, over-rated and doesn’t perform in important games.

Questions must obviously be raised at the revelation; Zlatan only played 62 minutes for one, and it must be asked why Valdes did so much running himself (amidst speculation they may have counted him picking the ball out of his own net). But the fact stays strong even without analysis, and when combined with the obvious poor performance of ‘Ibra’ throughout the game, his doubters in the English media have enough fodder to last them until his inevitable hat trick against his former club in two weeks time.

But is all this criticism justified? Andy Gray stated that Ibrahomovic had ‘struggled’ in his first season at Barcelona during his commentary of the game. However twenty goals in thirty-six games, including fifteen in La Liga, would seem to disagree. Considering the man he changed places with, Samuel Eto’o, has scored only sixteen in thirty-eight games in Italy, Zlatan’s return grows in stature. On a similar stage, the Swede finished top scorer with twenty-five goals in Serie A in 2008-09, with four more goals arriving in other competitions. His manager at the time, Jose Mourinho, described him as such:

“I think there are four outstanding players in the world – Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Kaká. At the moment, I think I have the best in the four – the best player in the world”

Such praise, from a man widely regarded as one of the greatest managers there has ever been, hints that the adulation thrown at the 28-year-old from all corners of the world may be fairly justified. As shown above, goals are something not missing from his overall game, and his pace and finishing ability combined with flamboyant exhibitions of individual skill (read: his ‘back’ pass earlier this season for Barca) display many qualities required to be named as one of the best players in the world. So where does the doubt come in?

Well, it turns out there is quite a lot of evidence for the opposition too. Zlatan’s two-goal haul against Arsenal in March produced his first ever goals in the knockout stages of the Champions League, after anonymous appearances in games against Manchester United for Inter Milan last season, and indeed against Inter themselves on Tuesday.

His four games for Sweden in the 2006 World Cup were entirely fruitless, and five of his sixteen goals for Sweden in forty appearances came in two games against lowly Malta (with two more coming against San Marino, if we’re being overly cynical). Ibrahimovic has consistently underperformed on a multitude of big occasions in the football calendar, and with Sweden missing out on South Africa in 2010, he has a maximum of two enormous games in which to prove the international doubters wrong, for this season at least.

The enigma of Zlatan Ibrahimovic is likely to play on for a few years yet. Firstly, in England at least, we must ignore the tabloid idiocy that seems to describe him as a lazy, no-hoper purely because he has never produced the goods in a game screened on British terrestrial television. If his exceptional goals-per-game record happened to occur in the Premier League as opposed to Italy and Spain, this blinkered viewpoint would be shifted completely. However, to become a player that goes down in history as a great as opposed to an exceptional goal-poaching show pony, Ibrahimovic must continue to work out the lethargy and anonymity seen on Tuesday, and produce the kind of performance that the likes of Lionel Messi have done time and time again at five years his junior.

Only then, will all doubt of his talent be removed, and ‘Ibra’ can live up to Jose’s billing.

7 Responses

  1. Dave Cooper says:

    Very good article. Personally I think that Ibrahimovic is a very good, if not great, player, simply because he does thinks with a football that no other player can do (see his backheeled volley against Bologna last season, or his goal for Sweden against Italy at Euro 2004). He hasn’t performed as consistently well as someone with his frankly ridiculous natural talent should have done, but he’s always willing to try something a bit different or a bit special.

  2. Archie Valparaiso says:

    Sid Lowe, unfortunately and uncharacteristically, swallowed a piece of cesspit-stirring Marca spin wholesale. The fact mentioned here that Ibrahimovic only played 62 against Valdés’s 94 means, for anyone with a calculator handy, that if he’d played the full match he would have run further than Messi and almost as far as Piqué. In other words, “lazy Ibra” is as much a non-story as “big-match bottler Ibra”.

    If any criticism is to be levelled against him for his performance in the first leg against Inter, it’s that he failed to do what he usually does as well as, if not better than, Eto’o used to: draw the central defenders away to create gaps for Messi to exploit. But he wasn’t fully fit, as both he and Guardiola have acknowledged, and as a result his positioning was too central and static.

    In yesterday’s Liga match he scored one goal (his 21st this season) and gave the assist for another (his 9th – and that’s one more than, ahem, Xavi, fact fans). If, say, Bojan had done the same, people would be calling him a “little genius” rather than calling Ibrahimovic a “lumbering liability”.

    Otherwise, I agree with the points made here, but would add that adapting to Barcelona’s relatively weird training and tactical systems – not to mention a club culture that can sometimes verge on the cult-like – usually takes players bought in from abroad a season or two, and it often never happens at all – right Hleb and Chygrynskiy?

  3. Archie, thanks for your comments.

    The stat from Marca was only really meant to kick off the article as opposed to provide the entire focal point. The intention was to investigate into why Ibrahimovic is such an enigmatic character to any lover of football, and the fact that even his staunchest supporter could at least level some criticism at certain performances he has made in big games.

    Very interesting point regarding making it big at Barca, and the fact that some talents never do. Would it be ignorant to suggest that given the kind of poaching goals that Ibrahimovic scores, its easier for him to fit in than most, given the service around him?

    Great statistic regarding Xavi assists as well, although I would suggest that Xavi’s assists are a greater example of extraordinary football than the kind of assist a striker, any striker, usually gets in the form of a lay-off in the box etc. But maybe that is me just being too critical of Ibra again….

    Again, cheers for the comments, need some criticism!

  4. Archie Valparaiso says:

    Thanks for the welcome, David. I’m very pleased to have found this site.

    On goal-poaching: Ibra’s actually turned out to be a lot less me-me-me inside the box than Eto’o used to be.

    On stat-quoting: I only really mentioned that Xavi stat because the Marca-driven “lazy Ibra” meme was all over the place this last week and annoying me greatly. Saying “Yabbut he gives more assists than Xavi!” served me nicely to show just how meaningless plucking stats out of the air ultimately is. (As you rightly suggest, if there was a stat for the key pass rather than the last one, then Xavi would probably turn out to be responsible for 86% of all Barça’s goals since 1995!)

    This goal last Saturday is a good example of both the above points: Ibra selflessly lays the ball off to Henry, after receiving the key pass from Xavi. Had that been Messi, he would have chipped the keeper — and scored — for sure.

    I have a splendidly pretentious theory about Barcelona: they play grammatical football, with each move like a carefully composed sentence. The players mix it up when it comes to who’s the subject, object, adjective or preposition. But Xavi is always, always the verb.

    Finally, in case you missed it, among all the noise about tonight’s match, something quite astonishing (because of who said it) and impressively astute (because it totally nails the Enigma of Ibra) was quietly said yesterday:

    [Ibra] has got really great technique for a bad player and really bad technique for a great player.

    – Johann Cruyff

    No, I’m not quite sure I know what it means either — but isn’t that just Ibra all over?

  5. Archie Valparaiso says:

    (Er, and it’d be even more astonishing if I’d spelt “Johan” correctly.)

  6. Ah that Cruyff quote is outstanding. Should have done my research and had that nailed on to open the article!

    I have no idea of your background obviously, but you should send some articles in to the site. Really like the idea behind the sentence theory.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply