Tom Oldfield

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a man who divides opinion like few others – he is the Marmite of European football, if you like. Considering that the big clubs have come knocking for the Swede time and time again, he must be doing plenty right but Ibrahimovic is no stranger to criticism.
Having left both good and bad memories at Ajax, Juventus and Inter Milan, the 6”5 front man was handed another golden opportunity to prove his worth when Barcelona snapped him up this summer, sending Samuel Eto’o and £40M to Inter in exchange. It was a transfer that changed the dynamic of the European champions and it would have received even larger headlines had deadly rivals Real Madrid not opened their chequebook to land Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka.
Ibrahimovic was left with big boots to fill. Eto’o scored a hatful of important goals while wearing the Barcelona shirt, including strikes in the Champions League finals of 2006 and 2009, and the Swede needed a bright start. The Barça fans know their football and would settle for nothing short of the best from their new signing. Thus far, they have not been disappointed. Ibrahimovic has hit the ground running, scoring seven goals in as many league outings, and the Catalans are top of the table.
So where do the problems lie? Why are pundits still split over Ibrahimovic’s worth? The answer generally does not lie in his goal-scoring record. The striker managed almost a goal every two games in the league for Ajax and, though that average dipped at Juventus, Ibrahimovic smashed 57 goals in 88 Serie A games for Inter. He also has a knack for spectacular strikes, punishing city rivals AC Milan on numerous occasions during his Nerazzurri days.
When he is on song, Ibrahimovic is unplayable for defenders. His strength and height allow him to excel in holding the ball up and bringing others into the game while his touch, vision and ball control make him wholly unpredictable. And all that makes Barcelona an even more frightening proposition. The champions may not have shown it against Rubin Kazan of Russia – suffering a shock 2-1 defeat to the minnows at the Nou Camp – but Ibrahimovic offers another dimension to their play when put alongside Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.
Yet it is impossible to ignore the negative press that the Swede attracts. His attitude has regularly been a topic for debate and disapproval. In a similar way to Manchester United’s Dimitar Berbatov, his body language tends to be interpreted at times as moody and disinterested. He can be brilliant one day, woeful the next. Ibrahimovic’s style of play has been dubbed selfish on occasion and he has hardly endeared himself to former team-mates with some of his comments to the media.
Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill is one of many detractors. O’Neill called Ibrahimovic ‘the most overrated player on the planet’ during the last World Cup and he is not alone in sharing that opinion. The Swede has also gained an unwanted reputation as a player who fails to produce the goods when it matters most and critics point to key fixtures for club and country when he has gone missing.
The Swede gets a particularly rough deal in England. His appearances against English clubs in the Champions League have left a lot to be desired and were certainly not in line with his big billing in Italy. In 2006, as a Juventus player, Ibrahimovic drew blanks in both legs of the quarter-final against Arsenal. Two years later, now part of a talented Inter side, the striker was equally non-existent in the second round clashes with Liverpool, failing to get on the scoresheet in a 3-0 aggregate defeat. He was anonymous for long stretches and did not appear to have the stomach for the fight. English fans were entitled to ask what all the fuss was about.
Manchester United encountered a marginally improved Ibrahimovic in last year’s Champions League but again the Swede could not breach an English defence. His ball control drew the odd admiring gasp from the Old Trafford faithful but that was as good as it got. For all the hype, there seemed to be a lot of sulking but little end product. And when the going gets tough and results start to slip, nothing angers supporters more than a player who appears to be giving less than 100 per cent to the cause.
This, perhaps, is particularly an element of the modern era, where strikers are expected to provide the first line of defence. The work-rate displayed by Fernando Torres, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez is a reminder that fancy footwork and goal-scoring are not the be-all and end-all. The top players are expected to offer the full package and that includes tackling, closing down and tracking back.
Having said that, the glowing praise afforded to Ibrahimovic by knowledgeable sources such as Fabio Capello, Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti cannot be ignored. Indeed, Capello once tagged the Swede the best striker in the world. It seems that Europe just has not seen Ibrahimovic’s best efforts in the Champions League, European Championships or World Cups, adding fuel to the argument that he disappears in big games. But those who watch him regularly are more effusive with their praise.
And he has endeared himself to his new team-mates at the Nou Camp. Xavi, the mastermind for so many of Barcelona’s triumphs, told the media: “Everyone said he was awkward but that is not the case. He is very likeable, he has adapted very well.” Meanwhile, Barça boss Pep Guardiola admitted: “He [Ibrahimovic] is a player who can do many things, and is very powerful.  He will bring something different.”
The debate on Ibrahimovic has the potential to rumble on but, as part of the Barcelona set-up, the Swede has the chance to silence his critics. He will be presented with plenty of big stages to dominate and, surrounded by such outstanding team-mates, the smart money would be on Ibrahimovic adding more silverware to his collection.
If he cannot ditch the over-rated tag at Barça, he never will.  

Related Articles: