How many 39-year-old strikers could cause havoc for some of the best defensive players in the world? It is likely that Zlatan, who has a natural hunch for winning, would modestly declare he is the only one. Who would argue with him at this moment, as his form is on fire.
After a particularly brutal performance in the Serie A, Zlatan posted an image of a big cat with blood dripping from its jaws and the Italian word for hunger “Fame” written beneath. It is a statement of his desire to continue to dominate with Milan, even when many questioned whether he was up to this challenge.
To be fair, Ibrahimovic had swapped a top European club for LA Galaxy in his late 30s. For most players this signals the swansong at the end of a career. It was fair to assume he was winding down his career. Then, the move to Milan in the winter and the mixed reaction of sports’ pundits followed. Even the directors of Milan tried to manage the expectations of the fans, making clear he might not make the impact they hoped.
Yet, after 10 months with Milan, Zlatan has most definitely exceeded even the highest expectations. He scored on his first start with the club. At the time he arrived Milan were averaging less than a goal a game and by the end of the season they were sixth and had qualified to play in Europe. Ibrahimovic increased this goal average to more than 2.
That Derby Win
Why did he post the image of the bloody lion? Well, it was in response to a first derby win in four years. He had also been forced to take time out to self-isolate, so he returned hungry to shake off this gap in his season. Any fear that his time away would make him rusty for the game against Inter Milan soon exploded, as he picked up two early goals. Granted, Inters defense wasn’t working well in the game. There was some chaos in the backline which allowed Zlatan to get behind them and score in the 11th minute from the penalty he earned from an amateur lunge.
While Lukaku brought Inter back into the game, Ibrahimovic offered the decisive blow with a free-kick in the 89th minute. Was he tired and asking to come off just before – yes – but did the manager understand his potential to influence the game and keep him on the pitch – also yes.
A much bigger contribution
Ibrahimovic has most definitely made an impact by rising to the top of the scorers for Milan. When you buy a striker you need them to score; it is a simple conclusion to draw. His record has helped Milan take every point from the opening four games and they sit atop Serie A.
However, Zlatan’s impact is much more than the goals he scores. He brings with him a presence and an attitude that seeps through to the rest of the team and the whole club. He has increased their expectations and roused in them a competitiveness that takes talented players and turns them into an unbeatable team. While he may seem self-obsessed to the media, the players report he is generous with his time and his desire to help them be better.
A great example of Ibrahimovic’s generosity was revealed in an interview by Leao. He reported how Zlatan took time to give Leao pointers and tell him of his potential to be a guiding light for the club. Sticking close to his team-mate, Ibrahimovic seeks to mentor him to fulfil his talent. Rebic offered a story that shared the sentiment that Zlatan helps everyone. While you could argue that his hogging of the media is a means of claiming all the glory for himself, you can also suggest he is trying to keep the pressure away from the young players in the team. Whatever you say, his self-belief is likely to be infectious and serve as the perfect role model for his colleagues.
While we are not suggesting that Milan are succeeding only because of Zlatan. It takes more than a one-man team to lead the Serie A. Indeed the potential of the young group of players at the club is inspiring. There is Donnarumma, Romagnoli, Hernandez, Kessie, Bennacer – as well as Leao and Rebic. The real credit has to go to Pioli who has built something from the wreckage at the club. They are far from dependent on Ibrahimovic.
Yet, when you take a risk and bring in a nearly-40-year-old to be your gun striker, you deserve a bit of magic too. This is what Zlatan brings with his on field action and his off field attitude – a sprinkling of stardust that makes something special happen. You also deserve some luck. It is true that Zlatan’s attitude and hunger have positively rubbed off on the group of players he has joined and so the stars are aligning to promise great success for Milan.