There are times when you need that flamboyant man up front! The kind who takes the ball, runs at defenders, makes space and scores. Then there are times when you are a team like Barcelona, who come forward in hordes.
With the likes of Messi and, now, David Villa in attack, the role of the central man becomes different. He is no longer required to beat opponents, just bringing the others into the game is enough. So why did we pick Zlatan Ibrahimovich as the core player for this article?
You’ll find out!
THE DIRECT PLAY
In England, football isn’t about finesse and beauty, unless you are Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspurs or Arsenal. Even in these teams, only Chelsea is the one that actually uses the direct route. Manchester United can also join the club at times.
The idea is simple! Boot the ball up the field, towards your target man, hope that he gets to it before the defenders, and hope that he can hold on long enough to allow the others to come forward. This is an effective strategy when you are under pressure, or up against a stronger team. However, in England, this seems to be the strategy of choice.
The problem comes when you are playing with strikers like Jermaine Defoe, Wayne Rooney or even Fernando Torres.
None of these strikers have what it takes to play the target man. Sure, they are all capable of being the «go to» guy when it comes to scoring chances. In build-up play however, they aren’t what you would want. As a coach, a Wayne Rooney running at defences isn’t as important as a Peter Crouch or Emile Heskey who can, somewhat, hold up the ball.
The fact that they play for teams that require them to do so also helps.
WHEN TO HOLD UP
Usually, when weaker teams play, they are more or less under pressure for a majority of the game. This means that when they do get possession, they need to make the most of it. Attacking on the counter is good, but unless you have players who can get up the pitch quick enough, counters are worthless.
Clearing the ball out of danger, up the pitch, can get your striker into play! With little support upon receiving the ball, the striker has no choice but to either run at defenders, or hold his position for support.
The former, more often than not, leads to loss of possession!
So, holding up the ball means that those midfielders get that extra bit of time to come up and take the ball off. This can not only lead to a quick counter, but can also allow numbers to pile up, resulting in possession play at the other end of the pitch.
Besides the obvious counter attack, strikers will need to hold onto the ball when midfielders are struggling to make space. Passing the ball ahead, to the target man, brings the defenders up in the hope of winning the ball. If the striker can hold onto the ball, defenders will be drawn out, bringing the entire line higher up on the pitch.
This means that midfielders, or other strikers, get that time to pick out spaces in a moving defence. Through balls or simple layoffs to the back, are ideal for relieving the pressure and creating opportunities.
WHY ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVICH
Think about it, what does the target man need? Power? Finishing ability? Strength on the ball? Ability to win common balls?
Yes, all of the above! What Ibrahimovich has, is all that and more!
Excellent ball control, the ability to beat defenders on one-on-ones, and even one-on-twos at times, the skill to thread that perfect pass, the vision to pick out that wonderful run – He has a lot more to offer for sure!
Then why did he have a dismal season at Barcelona?
Well, he didn’t!!! Here’s why!
In 2009-10, Ibrahimovich started 23 games for Barcelona in the League, 9 in the UEFA Champions League and 1 in the Spanish Cup. He came on as a substitute 6 times in the league, and once each in the other two formats. He was taken off in just 7 games in the league, 4 in the UEFA Champions League and also in the only game he started, in the Spanish Cup.
Guardiola persisted with Ibrahimovich despite the Swede scoring just 16 goals in the League, 4 in the UEFA Champions and one in the Spanish Cup. Not the 30 goal striker but a decent 19 goal tally. Is that enough for a player like Ibra?
SUPPORTING ROLE STATS
In the League, Ibrahimovich created 30 goals, 7 of which were when he came on as a substitute. This tally is an incredible 12 in 9 UEFA Champions League games and 1 in the Spanish Cup start that he made. He earned a penalty in the league and won the ball 20 times, with 4 more occasions in Europe.
To put things into perspective, we compared him with another top European striker, Wayne Rooney. Here is what we got!
Wayne Rooney scored 26 goals in 32 league games – more than Ibrahimovich! He scored 2 in the Carling Cup, 5 in the UEFA Champions League – both more than Ibrahimovich! Here is the clincher, however – Rooney had just 7 assists, in ALL competitions, for Manchester United and England (This includes all qualifying and FIFA World Cup games as well). That figure is less than Zlatan’s figures for the UEFA Champions League alone.
Both played as lone strikers up front, in teams with two distinct styles of attacking football. Rooney had 90 shots on goal compared to Ibra’s 94, but that can also be attributed to Barcelona’s playing style.
VERDICT ON COMPARISON
Wayne Rooney was playing with a team that doesn’t pass or hold the ball like Barcelona does. However, it has to be said that Ibrahimovich, despite playing in a team like Barcelona, had a role unlike most central strikers do. At least for Barcelona i.e.!
Guardiola played Ibrahimovich as a target man, who would hold up the ball, pass it around, help keep possession and even score the odd goal every now and then. Ibrahimovich earned a lot of flak for his inability to score and for giving the ball away. However, 43 assists from a target man, in one season of football, is an extraordinary number by any means!
Yes, the fact that he plays for Barcelona means that more passes turn into assists! It also, however, shows that when Ibrahimovich played for Malmo FF, Ajax, Juventus and Inter Milan, in a regular striker’s role, he was prolific! In his 12 year career, Ibrahimovich has had just 4 occasions when he’s ended in single-figure digits, in his league goals column. Two of them were for Malmo, when he played just 6 games in his debut season and 8 in his third season with the team.
His settling down season with Ajax saw him score just 6 while his final season at Juventus saw him score just 7. Besides that, Ibrahimovich has played the supporting striker role to perfection.
WHAT HE GIVES TO THE ROLE
For Ibrahimovich, it is more than just about playing as the support-striker. His goals, in any shirt, have brought people to their feet with mouths wide open. He shoots with incredible power, scoring from unimaginable angles and with spectacular precision. His dribbling goes against all logic. For a striker who’s 6’4″, twisting and turning should be difficult – or so physics says!
Ibrahimovich is a master at dribbling. His close control is immaculate and he has the tendency to humiliate defenders. Add to that a blistering burst of speed and you have the perfect attacking striker.
However, that is not all the Ibrahimovich is about. So many times, we see him run through more than one defender, sometimes even three, holding them off with sheer power. The fact that he can ease the ball past players, and not go down easily, means that he, more often than not, gets back onto the ball!
With his back to goal, Ibrahimovich is a bag of surprises.
First off, his height, agility and control allows him to get to balls, and hold them, that others couldn’t imagine. His skills baffle defenders and when he has his back to you, there is no telling what’s coming next.
He can thread a delightful pass; turn & run into space; lay it off for an oncoming teammate; hold possession; whiz past the defender with a fantastic turn followed by a burst of speed, or simply turn and slot the ball into any corner of the net with power or precision or both!
If that isn’t mind-blowing, what is? With Barcelona, Ibrahimovich has set up teammates more often than tried for goal himself. Guardiola has milked his height and strength to the limit. The fact that the Barcelona coach wasn’t willing to let Ibrahimovich go is a sign that he plans for more of the same in 2010-11.
THE CURRENT TEAM
Thierry Henry was no David Villa in his time! In 2009-10, Henry had to play on the left, when Pedro wasn’t used. However, Henry was merely a replacement, a backup – not first choice. Way past his prime, Henry was second fiddle to Ibra or Pedro, as Guardiola wanted. The fact that he played Henry so often is more out of compulsion than choice.
Now, with Lionel Messi on the right and David Villa on the left, Ibrahimovich will be more valuable down the middle. Throughout the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Villa showed what he can do wide out on the left, cutting in. Messi has already shown that for the right side of the field.
Ibrahimovich did, what he did in 2009-10, with Pedro on one side. Imagine the havoc he will wreak when Pedro is replaced by Villa! Like we, at Cleat Beat, like to say, «it ain’t ‘magic’ until its ‘Ibrahi-magic'»! Not cool enough, but could work!!!
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