It seems as though Zlatan Ibrahimović is ageless. Over the course of his 18 year career, the Swedish legend doesn’t look to have lost a step. What is more surprising is unlike many veteran players who have to completely alter their playing styles as they age, Zlatan plays, more or less, in the same way that he always has. And to top it all off, at the age of 35, the Swede is one of the nominations for the 2017 Professional Footballers’ Association Players’ Player of the Year.
As you know, here at Eat Sleep Drink Football we like to give a tactical context to the game, and the PFA Player of the Year award is no different. So let’s take a look at Zlatan Ibrahimović under a tactical scope.
Goal Scoring Mastermind
It’s evident that Zlatan’s game revolves around his strong physique and large frame. Yes, he has other qualities that make him a world class striker but his ability find the back of the net effectively using his physical abilities gives him an edge that few goal scorers have. As if this wasn’t enough, Ibrahimović brings a tactical awareness in front of the net that aides him when his physical dominance isn’t enough. He is able to find space in places where he might be surrounded by four or five defenders.
In the following video, we can see one of the methods that he has mastered to create space for himself. When the ball is moving towards the wings and the defending players are moving to rearrange themselves to cover all spaces in the box, Ibrahimović stands still or moves in the opposite direction as the opposing team. In many occasions, he finds himself right behind the back line with a gap of space.
Another method Zlatan uses to create space for himself is positioning himself directly between two defenders to take advantage of any miscommunication or failure to mark him. On several occasions, he attacks the space directly behind one of the backs he is positioned between. He understands how to exploit defenders’ blind spots. The following video provides us some examples of this tactic employed by the Swede.
As I have mentioned, Ibrahimović’s physical dominance allows him to create chances for himself that many strikers don’t have the ability to do. By simply overpowering defenders he creates crucial space needed to get his head on any cross. The following video shows us two crucial goals this season that came from his physical attributes.
After having played at the highest level for almost 20 years, Ibrahimović knows every trick in the book and isn’t afraid to be a street smart player. When I was re-watching some of his highlights from this 2016-2017 season, I came across the following goal which perfectly embodies what an intelligent and experienced striker is able to bring to the game.
In this clip, Zlatan knows there is going to be a cross coming from the right wing and with only one defender to mark him he knows he must beat his man to the space between the backline and the goalkeeper. To do so, he tugs on the defender as soon as he begins to accelerate. I can only assume he does this for two reasons; to unbalance the defender and to use the defender to help his acceleration. As you can see, in the end it works perfectly.
Ibrahimović is not only a natural striker but he is also the perfect target man. Although, his technical abilities allow him to go beyond this label and push him more into a creative midfielder role.
In the following video, we can see that Zlatan utilises his goal scoring abilities to push the back line as far back as they will let him go and when there is enough space in front of them, he will drop into that zone and create plays through the midfield. When he is given enough space, he will turn and run at the centre backs and when they follow him tightly he has the ability to lay the ball off to a winger screaming down one of the sides.
Along with being able to create by coming back into the midfield, Ibrahimović is constantly creating space for his teammates to occupy. Whether he is using his physical presence in the box or by simply making runs to free space up, he creates just as many chances as he finishes.
The following images show us some examples of how Zlatan is able to draw defenders towards him and hold them off which liberates space to be occupied. We can also see how when he attacks a space he has the awareness to realize that his teammates can now occupy that newly created space.
Although, Ibrahimović is not a favourite for the 2017 PFA Player of the Year, he shouldn’t automatically be discarded for the award. Since he arrived in Manchester, he has injected life back into the historic club. Mourinho knows how important he can be for the United attack and when he is placed under the right conditions, Ibrahimović is able to transform any team into a dangerous attacking side.