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Ibrahimovic: a proof by example

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.

Ibrahimovic's goals per month 06/07-10/11

Ibrahimovic's goals per month 06/07-10/11 (click to enlarge)

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.

Injuries

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.

Mental fortitude

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.

Zlatan "I'm the best!"

Zlatan "I'm the best!"

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.

Winter break

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.

Eto'o goals per month from 06/07 till 10/11

Eto'o goals per month from 06/07 till 10/11 (click to enlarge)

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.

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  • Peter S

    Very interesting read this. First of all, that journalist in the clip seems to be a real jackass. I mean, he’s asking for trouble there. Bollox interview where the goal clearly is to annoy Zlatan enough to get some bullshit headline. Well handled Zlatan. I’ve been reading about the results from the Milan Lab that suggests that Zlatan has achieved the best overall scores by far from their tests. I don’t know exactly what these different tests are but I suppose they test loads of different physical stuff. And I bet Zlatan would score high on that test made by that French fellow. The one Wenger used where Bendtner had the highest score they’d ever seen. Lastly, if Ibra wins the Serie A this year with Milan it will be his EIGHTH consecutive league title! Since joining Ajax in 2004 he’s won the title every single season (Even if the calciopoli scandal took away the two titles he won with Juve in 2005 and 2006). I believe that’s what you would call the true meaning of the Italian phrase “grande campione”.

  • Peter S

    Very interesting read this. First of all, that journalist in the clip seems to be a real jackass. I mean, he’s asking for trouble there. Bollox interview where the goal clearly is to annoy Zlatan enough to get some bullshit headline. Well handled Zlatan. I’ve been reading about the results from the Milan Lab that suggests that Zlatan has achieved the best overall scores by far from their tests. I don’t know exactly what these different tests are but I suppose they test loads of different physical stuff. And I bet Zlatan would score high on that test made by that French fellow. The one Wenger used where Bendtner had the highest score they’d ever seen. Lastly, if Ibra wins the Serie A this year with Milan it will be his EIGHTH consecutive league title! Since joining Ajax in 2004 he’s won the title every single season (Even if the calciopoli scandal took away the two titles he won with Juve in 2005 and 2006). I believe that’s what you would call the true meaning of the Italian phrase “grande campione”.

  • Peter S

    Very interesting read this. First of all, that journalist in the clip seems to be a real jackass. I mean, he’s asking for trouble there. Bollox interview where the goal clearly is to annoy Zlatan enough to get some bullshit headline. Well handled Zlatan. I’ve been reading about the results from the Milan Lab that suggests that Zlatan has achieved the best overall scores by far from their tests. I don’t know exactly what these different tests are but I suppose they test loads of different physical stuff. And I bet Zlatan would score high on that test made by that French fellow. The one Wenger used where Bendtner had the highest score they’d ever seen. Lastly, if Ibra wins the Serie A this year with Milan it will be his EIGHTH consecutive league title! Since joining Ajax in 2004 he’s won the title every single season (Even if the calciopoli scandal took away the two titles he won with Juve in 2005 and 2006). I believe that’s what you would call the true meaning of the Italian phrase “grande campione”.

  • Peter S

    Very interesting read this. First of all, that journalist in the clip seems to be a real jackass. I mean, he’s asking for trouble there. Bollox interview where the goal clearly is to annoy Zlatan enough to get some bullshit headline. Well handled Zlatan. I’ve been reading about the results from the Milan Lab that suggests that Zlatan has achieved the best overall scores by far from their tests. I don’t know exactly what these different tests are but I suppose they test loads of different physical stuff. And I bet Zlatan would score high on that test made by that French fellow. The one Wenger used where Bendtner had the highest score they’d ever seen. Lastly, if Ibra wins the Serie A this year with Milan it will be his EIGHTH consecutive league title! Since joining Ajax in 2004 he’s won the title every single season (Even if the calciopoli scandal took away the two titles he won with Juve in 2005 and 2006). I believe that’s what you would call the true meaning of the Italian phrase “grande campione”.

  • Kaushiklakshman

    Excellent article! Really enjoyed it. If I’m not mistaken, Milan can indeed send him back to barca right? I feel Milan must do this and start developing a young core around pato

  • Nichtbesonders

    Am I naive in suggesting that one possible reason for a dip in goal-scoring form around February is that Ibrahimovic invariably comes up against tougher opposition when the Champion’s League resumes in February?

  • Peter S

    Lol. You even been watching Milan this season? Ibra has been outstanding and is loved by everyone, players (except Pato who has massive talent but still can’t hit a pass to save his life. Consistency please…) and coaches

  • http://www.thefootballexpress.co.uk Rocco

    I’m afraid I have to disagree, Milan will be getting a bargain if they close the deal for Zlatan at €24m. His assists as well as his goals have been vital in keeping them top of the table for most of the season.

  • http://www.thefootballexpress.co.uk Rocco

    That’s not a naive suggestion at all, but I have an unproven hunch that the clubs are gambling on getting past the round of 16 and hoping to get him back at his best later on when things become more important.

    This is pure speculation, from me, but in an age of rotation it makes sense to try and stagger your squad’s peak periods.

    I might try taking a look at his strike partners in the seasons listed to see how they performed and if there is any inverse scenario.

  • http://www.thefootballexpress.co.uk Rocco

    Thanks for your comment! It’s always lovely to hear from people who read my writing.

    I’ve been intrigued with the Milan lab for some time but haven’t had a chance to investigate it properly. Some have suggested that it’s purely placebo, but this seems a little far fetched to me.

  • http://twitter.com/_kaushik7 Kaushik Lakshman

    Think my msg didn’t come accross as it did. I was just saying its a better option to build around Pato than shell out for a near 30 striker who on his day is one of the best in the world but like the article sometimes states bottles big games. But maybe that is a luxury Milan don’t have. You’re right I don’t watch enough full matches of theirs to judge.

  • http://twitter.com/_kaushik7 Kaushik Lakshman

    I see. yeah as Peter S points out, maybe I watch too much of only the important games to have made that assumption. Nevertheless, superb article.

  • http://twitter.com/slowernet Eliot Shepard

    Would perhaps be more instructive if you normalized graphs to goals per minute played, and stacked rather than overlaid the seasons. Thanks.

  • http://www.thefootballexpress.co.uk Rocco

    Thanks for reading, I may take a look at redoing the graphs later. I also don’t think that goals per minute (or 90 minutes) would show a great deal of difference given the number of full games Ibra appears to have played.

  • Fonz

    great read. interesting

  • Emily

    And, if Barca win the Champions League, it’ll be the second team in a row to achieve that title in celebration of his departure!

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