Sometimes in life, you get asked questions that are so unexpected that they shock you into complete silence. Not a silence designed for reflection to collate some coherent argument; not a silence to observe the surroundings that you inhabit, but a silence where your brain decides that it has given up on the human race once and for all and wants no further part of this whole “thinking” thing.
Revolutionary comedian Bill Hicks once described an experience similar in an American diner. A waitress approached Bill whilst he was reading a novel and asked “HEY! Why are you reading?” What you are reading is a perfectly legitimate question, but why are you reading?
Sometimes a question is so far removed from your psyche that your brain decides to go on a short cruise or something, leaving you with a stupid, tongue sticky out, half confused expression.
I once personally experienced this fully around 2008, when a well meaning Cule asked the question “Isn’t that Ibrahimovic guy overrated?” In keeping with my reputation as a incredibly sharp, Oscar Wilde like wit, the only answer that I came up were a mixture of several syllables consisting of letters that even Dictionary Corner couldn’t drag a word from.
After avoiding a near Scanners moment, I eventually regained enough mental faculties to drool out that not only was Ibrahimovic not overrated but that he is one of the great masters of football and will be historically referenced with the Di Stefanos, Beckenbauers and the Van Bastens. A player who helped define a time period. A player who was master of all that he surveyed and picked up trophies like Kieron Dyer picked up injuries.
During every time period in football, you have the really top guys in the game. The Messis, Ronaldos, Maradonas, Cruyffs, Peles, Bests and Eusebios. These are guys who take the game forward as a technical pursuits; men who use their undoubted genius and creativity to find innovative solutions to hundred year old problems. They are the artists that make our spirits soar and soul weep.
These great men tend to share a tendency to use a completely different football technique, something that is completely unique to them and will set the standard for imitation in decades to come. Cristiano Ronaldo hits a driven shot like he has a broken ankle and produces unbelievable power. Messi uses his upper and lower body in complete isolation when he has the ball in a close control situation thus is almost unreadable. Maradona had the almost psychic ability to judge the next movement that the defender was going to make and adjust his body which gave him the ability to beat people for fun, often including goalkeepers. These are all players who work outside of the system with a talent that could never really be taught to another.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not one of these players. Neither was Beckenbauer. Legions of children in the streets of Buenos Aries or Rio De Janeiro are not practicing the Van Basten turn as a way of gloating to their friends in a cheeky salute to their long remembered hero.
“Doing a Zlatan” amongst today’s children probably means kicking somebody in the face.
What all of these heroes possessed in spades though, was a technical quality that far outshone their faults. Whereas the artists mentioned earlier work outside of the system, these work inside the system and bring their technical abilities to almost deistic levels. They are the engineers, the bridge builders who use their grasp of physics to create the Golden Gate Bridge or the Romans who built the Colosseum. Their addition to the global understanding of their discipline is not revolutionary ideas, but taking already existing ideas that have been done a thousand times previously and refining them down to the magnificence of excellence.
As a technical player, there is nothing that Zlatan does badly. He has strengths and weaknesses as does every player, but the main focuses of his particular niche of the game are performed with a precision and perfection that they cannot help to be called just as beautiful as the artistic flair of Messi or Ronaldo.
There is a grey area in the duties that a striker needs to perform, of course. We have poachers who base themselves on intelligent movement across the defensive line. We have false nines who drop deeper to link up the play with their teammates. We have the target men who receive direct balls from deep and hold it up. We have speed merchants to connect through to through balls and attempt a one on one. We have inside forwards who start from wide to receive the ball and dribble inside with it, beating several men.
The core technical skill of all of these roles; intelligent attacking movement, link up play and lay offs, upper body strength and ability to bring balls down, a pace, power and vision to break the defensive line, an ability to beat men in possession – Zlatan can do all of these to an incredibly high standard. Each team that he has played for has played him in a completely different role, rarely sharing any overlap between them, and he has not only excelled in those roles but he has the medals to prove it.
Ibrahimovic is a highly decorated player. Possibly one of the highest of all time simply because of how many different clubs he has achieved success with. From the moment he stepped into an Ajax dressing room at aged 21, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has won the league almost every single year. There was a saying in Italy – “In the Serie A, we play 38 games then give the trophy to Zlatan’s team”.
He has cups too. Not Anglo-Italian Cups, but major national trophies. He has been voted Serie A Foreign Player of the Year 4 times, eclipsing the previous record held by Zinedine Zidane. His goal record, across almost 500 games in his whole career is 1 in 2.1. Comparatively, Raul’s was 1 in 2.3, Gary Lineker’s was also around 1 in 2.1 to pick two examples. He is the third most expensive player of all time, adjusted for inflation, behind Ronaldo and Zidane. Ibrahimovic is the world’s costliest player, having had £150m spent on him in total. The lists of achievements that this man has made in football goes on and on. The Observer once described him as “the Swedish Nwankwo Kanu”.
On a more technical note, I’ve picked some of attributes that I admire the most. This is a bit like picking your favourite Ice Cream flavour, but I’ve had a go:
Zlatan is nothing if not a superb finisher – he only ever has one thought in his mind. This is not a man who will garner 30 assists a season, though his passing vision and range is wonderful, his only thought is to score. And he does it often, he scored 28 goals in 32 games for Milan last year, often from outside of the box. When he is given adequate service, he’ll score again, and again, and again and again. Ibrahimovic actually had a better goal record than David Villa when at Barcelona despite having to dramatically adapt his game to fit the tika-taka that one could argue Villa was more suited to. He out Villa’ed Villa in a team built for Villa.
Beating a man
Despite his appearances as the off spring of Mrs Crouch’s holiday romance, Zlatan possesses a fantastic amount of pace and trickery. He doesn’t just have a wonderful first touch, he has an almost unnerving first touch. In this regards, he’s a little like Dimitar Berbatov in as much as he can surprise and amaze you with how he flicks a ball on, controls a ball or makes a yard of space for himself. In addition to his Newton defying first touches, he can also use his pace to beat a man in a straight race to a through ball or with the man on his shoulder. His ability to beat a man is as good as any winger that you are likely to see and can use his frame to his supreme advantage.
As with most people who are supremely talented within the confines of the system, Ibrahimovic is…a little erratic. A league season is a marathon and not a sprint, so in this competition his quality will always shine through. In a single competition, he could decide that he wants to count the amount of grass blades on a penalty spot. A famous example is when he once covered about the same ground as the Goalkeeper in a match. Considering that that was Barcelona’s Goalkeeper, whose main responsibility was to stand around looking pretty, it’s quite an achievement. This is one of the bad sides of Ibra but it IS a two faced coin. He may also hit a free kick from thirty yards in the last minute of the game, or come up with a performance that defies belief. Several times last season for Milan, he won games almost singlehandedly. His performances against Siena and Arsenal in the CL show how dominating that he can be. In the CL, he scored in 5 consecutive games last year. With Ibra on the pitch, no matter how desperate the situation becomes, there is always hope and that is a fantastic asset for any team, club or set of fans.
His potential transfer to PSG if it comes off is a masterstroke for PSG. Like Cassano at Milan, in Lavezzi they already possess another player who can play off the strengths of Zlatan and work around him effectively. With Pastore around him, they have a distributor of the ball who can spray balls over the top as he enjoys or find him with neat passes to feet for him to develop. In Ancelotti, they have a world class manager who has dealt with difficult characters his whole career, and dealt with them successfully. He can not only help merge Ibrahimovic into the new set of players, but at this stage of his career, he can help him adapt his game to increase his longevity as he did with so many players at Milan.
Presuming a £30m figure and wages of £200k a week, Ibrahimovic adds a £18m a year burden onto PSG in terms of Financial Fair Play presuming he signs a 4 year contract.
This may seem a lot but looking at it from PSG’s point of view, it isn’t much. PSG will need a striker to help shoot them towards their bid for domestic and European success no matter what they do. A cheaper striker costing £8m a year in amortisation and wages (£10m fee and £100k a week) saves them a whole £10m a year. Surely, this represents a bad deal for PSG?
Absolutely not. This isn’t Manchester City circa 2008 where they have 4 years to turn their spending into nice revenues to comply with the European regulations, PSG need to win titles right now. If you want to win titles, you buy Zlatan Ibrahimovic. For a difference of £8m, Zlatan will personally deliver you the league title and whichever cups he also fancies picking up on his way.
And this is why Zlatan is worth every penny. Moreso, this is why Zlatan will always be worth every penny. He will disturb your dressing room harmony, rile the fans, become a hate figure in the media and often look like he’s working as hard as a civil servant on a Friday afternoon. But throughout all of this, he will win titles. This will be his legacy, long after we have forgotten the crap ponytail, the misstep for Barcelona or the ninja kick to his teammates. Zlatan is a winner and the price you pay for him is the price for success.