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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

39-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic forcing a rethink on what is ‘old’ at soccer’s elite level

Zlatan Serie A leading scorers
Zlatan is Serie A’s leading scorer. Matteo Bazzi/EPA.

At 39, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the oldest player in Serie A this season. He’s also the league’s top goalscorer having found the net 10 times in his first six games of the 2020/21 campaign. His brace against Napoli last Sunday sent AC Milan back to the top of the Italian top flight table and Ibrahimovic has done more than anyone else to put them there.

Of course, the Swedish striker’s achievements in the game are well documented. He is one of the greatest players of his generation having won silverware in England, Italy, France, Spain and Netherlands. Conventional wisdom, however, suggests he should be on the decline at this stage of his career. Instead, Ibrahimovic is reaching new heights.

The former Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain forward isn’t as mobile as he was even a few years ago. A serious knee injury suffered during his time at Manchester United robbed Ibrahimovic of pace, diminishing his ability to play on the shoulder of the last defender. He doesn’t run the channels very often because his body simply won’t let him.

Through his intelligence and determination to adapt his game, however, Ibrahimovic has managed to make himself even more efficient in front of goal. AC Milan are playing to his strengths by making good use of crosses and long balls, as demonstrated by Ibrahimovic’s opener from a Theo Hernandez delivery against Napoli. Ibrahimovic’s team are doing a lot of the leg work for him, but even still, what he is doing this season, and in 2020 as a whole, defies what we thought we knew about soccer.

It’s long been said that a player’s peak comes at the age of 30. That’s when, according to conventional wisdom, a soccer player’s physicality will start to fade and they will start to suffer a decline in various areas of their game. However, Ibrahimovic’s success over the latter part of his career questions this notion.

And it’s not just Ibrahimovic who is forcing a rethink on what constitutes ‘old’ at soccer’s elite level. Behind the Swede in the Serie A scoring charts is 35-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo who has scored 36 goals in 35 games in 2020. Is it the case that advancements in sports science is pushing back a professional’s peak? Or are these two players just exceptional?

Ibrahimovic likes to remind us all of just how exceptional he is. The 39-year-old has willingly played up to the caricature of his public image in recent years, painting himself as some sort of soccer Chuck Norris. Ibrahimovic has backed this up with some stunning performances, though. The arrogance is just part of the act.

Those who felt Ibrahimovic’s goalscoring feats in MLS were due to the low quality of the North American League have been made to look foolish since his switch to AC Milan. Stefano Pioli has built his team around the Swedish striker. A Scudetto at this stage of Ibrahimovic’s career would rank among his greatest ever achievements.

Ibrahimovic is AC Milan’s focal point, but he doesn’t exactly embody the character of the team as a whole. In fact, he is something of a misfit in terms of his profile. Pioli has assembled a side full of young talent. The San Siro outfit have made the most of their scouting network to unearth some gems and Pioli has polished them up.

The aforementioned Hernandez has flourished into one of Europe’s best full backs since leaving Real Madrid. Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer have given the Rossoneri a solid midfield platform in the centre of the pitch, with summer signing Sandro Tonali a mix between the new Daniele de Rossi and the new Andrea Pirlo.

Gianluigi Donnarumma is widely seen as the heir apparent to Gianluigi Buffon as Italy’s next great goalkeeper, while Rafael Leao, Davide Calabria and Matteo Gabbia all performing at a high level. Then there’s Jens Petter Hauge, the Norwegian youngster who scored his first Serie A goal in the win over Napoli on Sunday. Many expect him to blossom into another superstar for AC Milan.

AC Milan are in the midst of a youth revolution and Ibrahimovic, as someone who has done it all before, is helping to bridge the gap between one generation and the next. It would, however, be incorrect to classify the Swede as a star of the past or a fading force. He is very much still shining brightly. Perhaps brighter than ever before.

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