Ibrahimovic: misunderstood, misused or just not that good?

With the arrival of David Villa at the Camp Nou many have speculated that Ibrahimovic’s days in Spain are over. Couple this with the unexpected attack the player’s agent launched on Pep Guardiola this weekend and the speculation may be true. Though the Swede hasn’t blistered through his debut season in the fashion of Cristiano Ronaldo, his output and performances have actually been far from the disappointment that many – especially in England for example – believe them to be.

“If you don’t play a footballer after spending €65m then you should be sent to a mental hospital”.

These were the words of Mino Raiola, Ibrahimovic’s agent, on Sunday. To an extent he has a point but he is also skewing the truth somewhat; breaking the bank for a star signing and then not affording that player with first team football is one thing but Ibra was only consistently dropped when he lost form in the final three months of the league season. So how has his first year at Barcelona been? Not as bad as a large portion of the media make out.

In 23 starts (and 6 substitute appearances) the Swede netted 16 goals in the league and overall, scored 23 goals in 42 starts for Barcelona. Slightly better than a one-in-two record is hardly terrible but, given the stellar standards and goals return of Ronaldo and Messi in recent seasons, it is far from blistering. If we consider the motive behind Guardiola purchasing the Swede we can see that he has undoubtedly provided Barcelona with a more direct method of attack – his crucial goal against Stuttgart in the Champions League highlights this. His relationship with Messi has also been encouraging with the latter assisting many of the big man’s goals in the first half of the season.

In terms of important goals Ibrahimovic has delivered, as mentioned, in Stuttgart, two at the Emirates where his record against English clubs was under scrutiny, and also in the first el clasico of the year. The variety of his goals (headed, lobbed, chipped, poached, powered, deftly finished and from set piece) is more than encouraging and the quality of his assists (a fine layoff for Messi against Getafe, and a lovely dragged back heel for Pedro against Mallorca) highlight his vision and technique. The problem with Ibrahimovic however is a desire for the spectacular that can frustrate and in the latter part of the season we saw his confidence low and his output suffering. The very best in the world never allow a dip in form to affect their self belief yet this appears to be the case with Ibrahimovic.

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Despite important goals and variety to his play the world was most interested when Barcelona and Inter clashed in the semi-finals and Ibra was ineffective. I have spoken in a previous article (see here) that the choice to deploy Ibrahimovic was a tactical mistake by Guardiola considering Samuel and Lucio’s strength and aerial ability; they marked Drogba splendidly and subdued Ibra to anonymity in both legs – but instead of questioning Guardiola’s tactics it was Ibrahimovic who shouldered much of the blame.

Another difficulty which makes the Swede a victim of circumstance more than an inability to adapt is the impossible expectation placed on Barcelona on the back of the previous year’s treble. Anything less than that success is a mini failure and everyone has been fast to blame the difference Ibrahimovic induces in the team’s style of play. But this isn’t completely fair: the swift decline of Thierry Henry and the poor form mixed with repeated injuries of Andres Iniesta (just one goal and five assists since scoring his thrilling last minute strike against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in 2009) has all hampered the team’s style and consistency making Guardiola move toward a more functional and less spectacular team.

Whilst purchasing David Villa adds another world class striker to the mix the inevitable loss of Thierry Henry means, in terms of forwards, Barcelona would be wise to hold on to Ibrahimovic for one more season. Given his astronomical transfer fee it would make sense to stick with him and in a tweaked line up his penchant for the audacious may yield more fruit – also, the idea of an attacking trio of Villa-Ibra-Messi is not inconceivable. Though Pedro has been brilliant and Bojan has shown his quality, keeping Ibrahimovic affords them an alternative with definite value. Despite the polarised opinions of the Swede, his success cannot be argued: seven league titles in the past seven years with four different clubs (calciopoli notwithstanding) mean he is accustomed to winning, and I maintain his impact on Barcelona can still be special.

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