It is a question that will not go away. Milan Coach Massimiliano Allegri is asked it every other press conference and the body language of the two players involved is analysed each time they are on the pitch together. Yet people still wonder whether Zlatan Ibrahimović and Alexandre Pato are compatible with one another.
Three years ago, this would not have been in doubt. The problem right now is that the duo are seen to be too similar – both perform their best work nearer the penalty area, like to be at the end of moves and score goals. But when Pato first started playing for Milan in 2008, he was a clear seconda punta, and spent most of his time on the pitch alongside Alberto Gilardino, Filippo Inzaghi or Ronaldo (with a few exceptions). The then-Coach Carlo Ancelotti was not convinced Pato could play as a prima punta, publicly stating that he did not believe he had the right qualities to fulfil this role.
That is no longer the case. If anything, the Brazilian looks more like a prima punta than ever before, though this term does him a disservice, as he is more than just a penalty box loiterer. Nevertheless, the change in the youngster has been remarkable, albeit gradual. In 2008/09, his first full season with the club, Ancelotti was forced to use him as the main man up-front due to long-term injuries to Marco Borriello and Filippo Inzaghi. It was a success – Pato scored 18 goals in all competitions – but he also created goals for his teammates, five in total, only beaten by Clarence Seedorf and Kaká, showing what a complete striker he was shaping up to be.
In many ways, he still is that complete striker, with all the attributes you could possibly want in a forward, but the gradual change in his characteristics has seen him lose that ability to create for others and brought into sharp focus his partnership with Ibrahimović. Pato spent most of last season either injured or on the right-wing in Leonardo’s 4-2-3-1, yet he finished the campaign with just two assists having played almost all of it in a position that you would imagine is perfect for creating goals for others. His goals to games ratio was impressive when you account for his right-wing position – 15 in 33 appearances – but by contrast on the opposite flank Ronaldinho finished with the same number of goals, and 16 assists.
His pass to set up Kevin-Prince Boateng for the Ghanaian’s goal against Napoli on Monday was his first assist of the season, which in 22 appearances is not particularly great. So either Pato has become a different player to the 18-year-old first seen in 2008, or the judgements made by Coaches (and fans) with regard to his characteristics were wrong to begin with. Either way, it impacts on his partnership with Ibrahimović, because they are obviously not a natural fit in the way that Antonio Cassano or Robinho appear to be with the Swede.
However, they are not incompatible, but the partnership will require time and work from both parties to become a success. In particular, Ibrahimović needs to adapt his game slightly. With Robinho or Cassano on the pitch, he can quite happily linger around the penalty area safe in the knowledge he has someone alongside him who can feed him the ball and create chances. Visually, the football Milan plays looks slightly better with this combination (part of the reason why it appears Zlatan cannot work with Pato) because of the creative abilities of Robinho and Cassano.
With Pato, the onus is on Ibra to create and move away from the penalty area, which is why he averages a goal every 219 minutes when the No.7 is on the pitch, compared to a goal 125 minutes when he is not. Ibrahimović is more than capable of adapting – he is comfortably the club’s assist leader this season – and as such a successful combination with Pato is a very possible reality. But everyone is looking at the Brazilian as the decisive factor in any successful partnership, when they should really be casting their attention to the Swede.