A few weeks ago, in the wake of Milan’s defeat and elimination to Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League last 16, questions were asked of Zlatan Ibrahimovic once again. The Swede is a man who has divided opinion for a considerable period of time, some rejoice in taking in his sumptuous first touch while others are aghast at his nonchalance and attitude when things aren’t going his way.
Ibrahimovic is also often accused on a regular basis of going missing in the ‘big games’. Guardian journalist Paolo Bandini proposed, with some certainty, that the big bad Swede often tends to falter around February and had done for the last few seasons. So in the name of science, and curiosity, it seems only fair for the numbers to do the talking.
The graph pictured above depicts Ibrahimovic’s goals tally per month for games for clubs since the 2006/07 season. When examining the spread of goals across the past four seasons, there is a great variance in the way he starts the season. Regardless of his varying starts there is a noticeable dip in February which remains a constant throughout the sample period.
Paolo was correct. There is a drop off in goals scored in club competitions around this time, though this poses the question as to why this is the case. Ibrahimovic’s reputation lends itself to mercurial performances, but to pass it off as just that would be lazy and inconsiderate. But there must be an explanation for it.
Reduced playing time
The possibility that Zlatan hadn’t played as many games in February would offer us a simple answer. A quick look at the number of games played over the course of the sample period shows little difference, with between four and six games played in February between 2006/07 and 2010/11 – except for 2007/08 where he played three.
A cursory glance at the injuries sustained by Ibrahimovic in the past five years showed that he has not always been in tip top condition. In 2007 he sustained a head injury which kept him out of the first half of the month – despite the wishes of Massimo Moratti, wanting to rush him back. When he did return he played four games in just 11 days scoring just once in Inter’s 5-2 romp against Catania.
In 2008 he was rested for games before Inter’s game against Liverpool and was injured for a short while afterwards. Mancini said “Ibra hasn’t been at his best for a while. He has a problem with a knee tendon and has been gritting his teeth for a few weeks.” This suggests all is not as it seems on the surface, even when Ibrahimovic is playing a full 90 minutes.
A man with an ego as large as Ibrahimovic’s is likely to spend a great deal of time considering how to back up his mighty claims. A hypothesis for his drop, and undulating, form all season in general could be due to performance based pressure.
There is little evidence to back this hypothesis, because whenever Ibrahimovic is spoken to he is very sure of his abilities and what he can achieve. We have seen some cracks in the cool exterior recently since the return of team mate Alexandre Pato.
Ibrahimovic has been visibly frustrated while playing with Pato, expecting the ball to be played to him and has chided the young Brazilian rather than offering encouragement on numerous occasions. We have seen Pato even purposefully ignoring Ibrahimovic when the Swede is in better positions to have a go himself – see Pato’s goal against Napoli. This frustration may also be the reason he lashed out at Marco Rossi against Bari, an act which will see him miss the upcoming Milan derby.
Even with these frustrations he may know that he has returned to scoring ways in previous years. Any player will have the confidence to back themselves, and Ibrahimovic’s past suggests he has good reason to do so.
Every time England is knocked out of an International tournament, those who aren’t blaming the weather or having to play on the wrong type of soil have been known to direct their ire at the lack of a winter break. The suggestion is that English players peak in spring and are exhausted by the time May and June rolls around.
Perhaps a break in games could be blamed? Taking a quick look at Samuel Eto’o's performances over the same period shows that he has also experienced similar drops – though not as regularly – as Ibrahimovic.
It is hard to imagine that the top European clubs aren’t able to keep their players well oiled over stationary periods across the whole season, or maybe it’s a price they’re prepared to pay in the hope that his strike partners will take up the baton.
It was meant to be this way
Anecdotal evidence from a few journalists who have access to coaches at Champions League clubs suggests that they may be prepared to accept dips in form from players across the course of a season. While the fans may want to get their money’s worth, pushing a player to maximum intensity over the course of a sixty, or more, game season will inevitably leave them feeling short changed in games that really matter.
Ibrahimovic starts the season well, and has good months in January, March and May (where enough games are played) but dips in November, February and April. This frequent oscillating pattern can’t purely be down to coincidence, can it?
Periodisation is becoming the latest buzz word in and around football, but it’s a practice which was first described in the early 1970s. It involves drawing up a training regime which divides a season into macro and micro cycles in order to avoid overtraining and provide peaks in times of competition. Studies by McCardle Katch nd Katch (1996) suggest that Empirical data backs up the theory, but more research is required to be assured of its effectiveness.
More questions than answers
Initially setting out in order to provide answers to Ibrahimovic’s February blues, there are more questions left open rather than answers given. Ibrahimovic undoubtedly carries a great deal of pressure on his shoulders – partly through his own attitude – and it appears that the injuries he has suffered are not similar enough to provide a huge insight.
His training regime and the possibility of aiming for peaks in the season could help clear up a lot of questions that remain. This is something that clubs are unlikely to post publicly, which is understandable given the high level of competition which exists in the game.
If the solution is to do with some form of periodisation, it is not restricted to a single club. The pattern suggests that the clubs have carried out similar research before, or on, purchasing him – or it is something he suggests (demands) when turning up on his first day.
Note: Where lines drop below on the charts above it is to do with the ‘Smoothing lines’ function in Microsoft Excel.
Numbers sourced from ESPN Soccernet.