“Zlatan’s style is more suited to Italian football than to Spanish football,” said legend Johan Cruyff and many have since agreed. But is one season at Barcelona enough to conclude that of a man hailed to be one of the greatest?
When Ibrahimovic arrived at Barcelona, he was expected to act as Pep Guardiola’s plan B. His imposing height and physical strength meant he could provide a whole new dimension to a squad that were occasionally placated by defensively sound sides that implemented an effective form of catenaccio. By leading the alternative plan to win, Ibra would still enjoy the attention of a side at his disposal. However, problems arose when the Swede was suddenly expected to be part of plan A, sacrificing his style and ego to merit a place.
Initially, the Swede slotted in nicely scoring seven goals in as many games and was briefly acknowledged to be la Liga’s top scorer. However when the injuries began to set in, tactical changes had to be implemented and in doing so, Guardiola stumbled upon even more of Lionel Messi’s never-ending talent – namely his effectiveness at playing as a central attacking midfielder. By changing the play to suit Messi, Ibra was effectively asked to play out of position.
Asking Ibrahimovic to act as a poacher who sits in the box and waits for a ball can be construed as an effective way of demonstrating blatant disregard for the player’s natural gift. Furthermore Barca’s lack of effective wing play further stifled Zlatan’s impact within the team. His most attractive quality is the ability to score goals from outside of the box and can be at his deadliest when playing behind another striker. As such, one can deduce that Pep misunderstood the most effective way to play Ibra and in doing so, lost faith in the centre-forward’s ability which consequently diminished the player’s confidence. At one stage even tap-ins proved to be too difficult for the striker Jose Mourinho once heralded as the best player in the world.
The problem with Ibrahimovic is that his ego demands that a team play for him. He must be seen as the focal point of the side and in giving in to his demands, the Italian sides have often been criticised for being overly reliant on the player. But that is how to best exploit the lanky striker’s skills. At Milan, Massimiliano Allegri ditched the Leonardo inspired 4-3-3 formation for the 4-3-1-2 shape to accommodate the Swede’s style of play and allow him greater impact on the game. Zlatan knows that the Rossoneri team revolves around him and his capabilities – much like it did at both Inter and Juventus. Unfortunately for Ibra, at Barcelona the team played for Messi.
Nonetheless, the player who scored 21 goals and bagged 11 assists can, by no means, be classed a failure. David Villa is deemed a success at Barca because he has learnt to adapt his style to allow for Messi’s protagonist role within the team. Ibrahimovic meanwhile arrived after enjoying several spoilt seasons in Italy where top sides constructed their teams around him and then went on to publically praise his skills. One can perhaps deduce that it is not that Zlatan is poorly suited to Spanish football – only that Italy are much more aware of his superior skills.