After his impressive showing against Arsenal last night, quite why Zlatan Ibrahimovic should be “a player that divides opinion” is one of European football’s greatest mysteries. Continuously derided in certain sections of the media as being lazy and ineffectual, a player “not suited to the big occasion”, the Swedish striker has been the subject of a good deal of criticism during his career. But the negativity directed at Zlatan is almost completely without foundation, another popular yet wholly inaccurate myth of the modern game.
To take a cursory glance at the Barcelona player’s record, a man once labeled as the best in the world by Jose Mourinho, is to see that the criticism directed at the Swede for what it is, absolute nonsense. Since moving to Ajax from Malmo in 2001, Ibrahimovic has won the league title with his various clubs in all but one season – championships in 2001/02 & 2003/04 with Ajax, 2004/05 & 2005/06 with Juventus and 2006/07, 2007/08 and 2008/09 with Inter – and has a good chance of continuing this remarkable run with Barca this season. In five of his six title-winning seasons as a player Ibrahimovic has scored more than ten league goals during the campaign, as well as the 15 he has already notched for Barca, making him one of the major contributors in a number of serially successful European sides. Quite how the talents of a player who has enjoyed so much success and produced such consistency in some of the continent’s toughest leagues can still be questioned is bizarre to say the least.
Whilst Ibrahimovic’s general ability is occasionally called into question, the most vehement criticism is usually vented by those who deem the Swede to be a “big game bottler”, a player who goes missing in high-profile fixtures. Although it is true that he’s never scored at a World Cup, Zlatan has scored two goals in six European Championship appearances as a part of a team where the quality of service into him is not to the standards he has received for his club sides over the years. To add weight to the argument, during his first season in Amsterdam it was Ibrahimovic who, aged just 21 at the time, scored the injury-time winner which won Ajax the KNVB Cup – Holland’s equivalent of the FA Cup. Indeed, the sheer number of times the striker has popped up with vital goals at key times during title run-ins – not to mention the winner he scored in El Clasico earlier this season and the two goals registered at The Emirates yesterday evening – demonstrates that he is more than capable of dealing with the pressure and scrutiny that comes with important games.
Although the striker’s goalscoring record in the Champions League is open to a degree of criticism – a goal every 3.5 games – we must bear in mind that Zlatan is not an out-an-out striker in the same way that the likes of Samuel Eto’o and David Villa are. Ibrahimovic is more of a target man, a traditional centre-forward used to bring the others around him into play (qualities which do not make much of an impact on raw statistics) and, as such, is unlikely to match the scoring ratios of some other of the game’s highly-regarded strikers. To compare him to Eto’o, his predecessor at Camp Nou, would be a pointless exercise, they are simply very different players playing in a similar position and cannot be judged against one another.
Despite being praised as one of the best players in the modern game by a number of managers in Europe, Ibrahimovic will probably always draw criticism from various quarters, cited as having a poor work ethic by those who don’t necessarily appreciate the value he brings to a team in terms of balancing the forward line and harnessing the talents of his fellow forwards. Yes, he occasionally looks disinterested and, yes, he does have a tendency to over-elaborate, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic is surely one of the most gifted footballers of his generation and should be treated as such.