Zlatan Ibrahimovic is easily one of the most iconic stars out there. The word ‘stop’ simply isn’t in his dictionary, and the Swede approaches 40 on the back of an exemplary MLS season with LA Galaxy.
Yet, with a number of distinguished achievements in Europe too, the definition of ‘peak Ibra’ is open to discussion.
Out of this World at Galaxy
2019 has truly been vintage for the Swede, and with 31 goals en-route to the MLS Cup playoff quarter-finals, he stood – literally and statistically – head and shoulders above his peers in the dressing room.
Of those 31 goals, nearly a third proved to be decisive matchwinners, and he was, in particular, the scourge of LA Galaxy’s rivals LAFC. Prior to a goal against Galaxy’s ‘El Trafico’ rivals in that losing quarter-final, one particular highlight of 2019 is a famous ‘perfect’ hat-trick of a header, left and right-footed shots, which he registered against LAFC back in July.
His ability to strike late was also fully in evidence with over a quarter (eight) of his 31 total strikes coming in the 15-minute period directly before the 90th-minute mark. This ability to produce a ‘late show’ is full evidence of Ibrahimović’s evergreen nature, and his undying ability to outlast many players five or six years his junior.
Ibrahimović’s dangerous aerial presence requires no elaboration. Though surprisingly gracious on the ball for a man of his height, ‘Ibra’ scored no less than seven goals via his head (22.5%) this year. He also enjoyed notoriety as a penalty spot expert, with LA Galaxy losing no games in the regular season where he netted from a 12-yard stare.
United Career Stands Out for Age vs Expectation
With the growth of football in the United States aided by the MLS’ launch in 1996, there may be a time in the future when it becomes a goldmine for Premier League talent. For now, however, it continues to bear a reputation as little more than a retirement home for the once-great of Europe’s top leagues.
While some would say that any aged maverick can flourish in the MLS, it takes a different type of scintillating sage to light up one of Europe’s biggest clubs – and the most successful Premier League team ever – Manchester United.
Despite being nowhere near the Premier League title race, for which these markets provide some insight this season, Ibrahimović managed to plunder 17 goals in 28 league appearances. To put that into context, last season’s Premier League golden boot was won jointly with just 22 goals apiece for each recipient.
Such was his impact a club he only left as recently as 2017, Ibrahimović was recently linked to a sensational, surreal return to United, especially with the club making a dismal start to 2019/20 and in need of inspiration. While such rumours and hearsay will almost certainly remain exactly what they are, it speaks volumes about the impact Ibrahimović made at Old Trafford in the Europa League-winning season of 2016/17.
Jury out Over ‘Peak Ibra’
As far as Ibrahimović’s career is concerned, it is difficult to truly determine which club brought him his greatest moments. In terms of pure trophy-winning, the first of the obvious contenders would be his spell at Inter Milan (2006-2009) when he won three Serie A titles in succession. His psychological strength was also in evidence, as he recovered well from the disappointment of seeing his league winner’s medals from Juventus revoked through circumstances beyond his control.
Adapting to the rigours of Serie A, after averaging roughly a goal every other game for Ajax over a three-year period, is never an easy task. That return dipped only slightly with Juventus, but then surged at Inter, although the one-year absence of Juventus from the top flight – and the absence of other realistic title contenders – may have been a very real factor.
In terms of trophies, his time at PSG (2012-2016) is unmatched, as is his return of nearly a goal every game across 122 appearances. That spell yielded a flush run of four Ligue 1 titles, but again, there was very little in the way of genuine competition for the summit. However, not even Ibrahimović’s indomitable spirit could break that most ancient of curses, and give PSG a first major European Cup this century.
AC Milan Rebirth – a True Representation of ‘Ibra’?
The recent emergence of links between Ibrahimović and a return to AC Milan, a whole seven years after departing for PSG, leads some to question if it was in fact Inter’s bitter rivals at which ‘Ibra’ truly came into his own. Those with longer memories will recall his time at Barcelona, which was goal-rich, but not a period where he really did himself justice. Much of that is due to the fact that Lionel Messi’s positional demands were met at his expense, and it stands to reason that Ibrahimović moves for nobody.
He left Barcelona in a state of disillusionment with the zenith of European leagues, despite his prior successes. That, on top of joining AC Milan as a man who had done so much good for Inter all-too recently, was a huge test of character, but one which the Swede passed with flying colours. Initially he joined on loan, which illustrates just how much Messi’s influence over the running of Barcelona’s tactics had restricted him. It did not take him long to turn around the Rossoneri faithful, and his loan season culminated in a title win.
Ibrahimović showed exceptional fortitude in spirit when he made his time with AC Milan count so emphatically. Ultimately, no matter how much older he may now be, it is that same spirit which the Rossoneri now so desperately need. Inexplicably mid-table, and with just four league wins going into their clash against Juventus prior to the international break, Milan need a dressing room character now more than ever.