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Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Art of Playing Striker

Musto Design
Musto Design

Euro 2016 starts this Friday. All week, we’ll be highlighting key players in all three phases of the game — defense, midfield, and attack — along with one manager. They’re all among the best at what they do, and the intricacies of their approaches help illuminate how soccer is played today. Check back tomorrow for more.

The best striker at Euro 2016 won’t be playing striker. Not really. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has won 11 league championships in four different countries (13, if you want to count the Italian titles that were revoked in the Calciopoli scandal). He is one of the 10 best soccer players in the world and one of the five best reasons to watch sports. And when he lines up for Cadillac clubs — Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, Paris, possibly Manchester United next season — he is the diamond-encrusted hood ornament. But for Sweden, for his country, he is the engine.

As a player and personality, Ibrahimovic is wholly unique (there are countless quotes I could cite here, but instead I will show you this picture of Zlatan holding a fish on a boat with a Black Flag sticker).

Zlatan Ibrahimovic/Facebook
Zlatan Ibrahimovic/Facebook

But his divergent experiences with club and country are actually pretty common. On their club teams, players like Poland’s Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich), Wales’s Gareth Bale (Real Madrid), Austria’s David Alaba (Bayern), and even someone as bright and shining as Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (Real) are part of a constellation of stars. When they are in trouble, they look up and see Arjen Robben, or Luka Modric, or Mario Goetze. They don’t have that luxury when they play for their national sides. Everyone’s looking to them.

At A.C. Milan, Inter, and PSG, Ibrahimovic was deployed as a classic no. 9 striker. His job was simple — lead the forward line, hold up the ball, always be closing — and he did it very, very well, netting 52 goals and 16 assists across all competitions for PSG this past season. And because he is a 6-foot-5 ballerina with an actual black belt, he often made the simple look sublime. Even when he hasn’t quite fit the team he is playing with, as was the case during his tumultuous (if still trophy-laden) one-year stint with Barcelona, he was still able to do things like this:

Strikers are only as good as their support; they need crosses from wingers and fullbacks, they need through balls from attacking midfielders, they need 1–2s from their strike partners, and then they need the right tactical plans from their managers to make it all happen. With Sweden, Zlatan doesn’t have Javier Pastore or Lionel Messi, or Dani Alves or Ángel Di María. He doesn’t even have Pep Guardiola or Laurent Blanc (despite how he might feel about them). He’s got Mikael Lustig, Pontus Wernbloom, and Erik Hamrén. Who? Exactly.

When we watch Ibrahimovic line up against Republic of Ireland next Monday, in Sweden’s first match in what is basically a group of death with Belgium and Italy (though death is relative in this newly expanded tournament), he won’t be playing in his club role. We will still see flashes of his Bruce-Lee-meets-Bob-Fosse brilliance, but those moments could happen almost anywhere on the field, not just in front of goal. We will get amazing midfield moments like this:

But the more he drops deep to orchestrate Sweden’s attack, the less likely it is that he will finish it. And that’s the tradeoff in these big tournaments. The very best players may not always make it as far on the international stage — Sweden hasn’t advanced past the group phase since Euro 2004 — but they are going to go to the wall trying to get there.

This past Sunday, Sweden played Wales in a very low-octane home friendly. With most players just hoping not to get hurt before the tournament, you don’t expect much from these warmup matches — other than maybe an exciting new hairstyle from Aaron Ramsey. But what we got was a textbook on how to play six positions at once, written by celebrated memoirist Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

He was the best player with the ball at his feet, the best in the air, and the best passer. Ibrahimovic was present in every third of the pitch. He dropped deep to pick the ball up from his center backs, set the pace in center circle with short, probing passes, and fended off defenders in the final third, setting up teammates in the penalty box.

Sometimes, he was Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper in the same 10-second sequence.

There will be lots of traditional striker play during Euro 2016; players like Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, France’s Olivier Giroud, and Germany’s Thomas Mueller are great examples of forward archetypes. They play the position in a style you can easily categorize. One is the bull, one is the target man, and one is the poacher. They are wonderful football players, but compared to Zlatan, they are practically using dial-up.

You have to believe in your own holiness to try something like that. You try something like that because you think, “It would be criminal to be capable of something like that and not share it with people.” Strikers can be selfish; they should be. The best thing about Zlatan — especially when he plays for Sweden — is that his selfishness is a gift. To us.