Article written by Mustapha Hassan.
In the Serie A 2020-21 season, AC Milan showed great promise and performances, having their best season in over a decade. Pioli’s tactics were spot on throughout the season, with the players on the field coming to life in surprising ways. The likes of Davide Calabria, Theo Hernandez and Rafael Leao have all had their best seasons as professional players this season but here we shed light on one of the most important players to the Milan system – 39-year old Swedish veteran Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
AC Milan’s System of Play & Starting 11
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has played a pivotal role in Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 formation, and the Red & Blacks have actively used the formation to get the best out of their supreme striker.
Elsewhere in the squad, Gianluigi Donnarumma has been one of the first names on the team sheet between the sticks, whilst Simon Kjær and Alessio Romagnoli have formed an impressive partnership in the heart of the defence. Since the January window, Chelsea’s Fikayo Tomori has also been given time at the back, aiding in Milan’s defensive solidity.
Despite originally falling down Pioli’s pecking order, Davide Calabria has achieved a new lease on life at the right back position, whilst Theo Hernández has become a revelation at the left back position since joining from Real Madrid in the summer of 2019. In the double pivot, Ismaël Bennacer has formed a rock-solid pairing with Franck Kessié in the middle of the pitch, keeping Sandro Tonali, Rade Krunić and Soualiho Meïté on the bench.
Ante Rebić and Alexis Saelemaekers have been Pioli’s first-choice pairing on the wings, although Jens Petter Hauge and Samuel Castillejo have been rotated into the side from time to time. After previously being used on the wings and in a deeper midfield position, Hakan Çalhanoğlu has played the best football of his career as the ‘trequartista’ of the side, playing off the shoulder of Zlatan in attack.
But Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the pinnacle – the focal point in attack, and the man all others look to when he’s in the side. But what makes him so good?
Ibrahimović’s Role in Attack
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has had a habit of scoring goals throughout his career, and has carried that on into his late thirties now at AC Milan. However, Ibra’s role in the team extends beyond just being a fox in the box and an out-and-out goal-scoring presence. The Swedish forward is fantastic at holding up the ball and bringing others into the game.
Ibrahimović knows there is no escaping from old age and has a keen awareness of his declining speed. Instead of trying to beat players 1v1, he uses his height and strength whenever possible (195 cm), and consistently competes for duels in the air with the opposition defense. This allows his team to save time in the build-up as they can send longer passes into his path for him to knock the ball down onto others, earlier on in moves. Here we see a duels map of the Swedish striker, which highlights the duels he fought in the first half against Inter Milan back in February.
With his natural aerial presence, he’s a constant headache that opposition defences have to watch out for. As a result, he occupies a lot of attention and can spend more time bringing others into the game.
Here is an example of this, in the Milan loss to Juventus back in January. Ibrahimovic’s presence in the box occupied two centre-backs, allowing space for the lonely Çalhanoğlu to advance into without pressure.
Ibrahimović’s role in the build-up and transitions
In football nowadays, the striker must have a role in the build-up. Historically, Zlatan’s role in a team has been relatively limited to the final third. However, his role at AC Milan extends now to being involved in the build-up, primarily due to his aerial presence and ability to hold up the ball with his back to goal. Above is a pass map for Milan’s players, which shows their heavy reliance on Ibrahimović and the great confidence they have in his abilities.
During the build-up, Zlatan drops to the midfield to receive the ball and calm the game down. He can then hold up the play as defenders engage him, and pass it off to the wings or fullbacks in behind the now vacated space.
In transitions, the same qualities can be used to allow others into the game. He remains a natural outlet for a quick vertical pass forward and can hold up the ball as others stride up the pitch.
Below is an example from Milan’s win against Bologna in January. Every player pictured is making a forward, vertical movement, except for Ibrahimovic, who has his back to goal.
He remains an outlet for Castillejo play the ball into, and then can use his speed and strength to draw defenders away from the more dangerous advancing players. This makes Ibrahimovic a massively dangerous player. Not only can he score goals for fun, he can also intimidate the opposition defense into oblivion.
ConclusionEmbed from Getty Images
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been on a different planet for most of his career. Remarkably, the 39-year-old Swedish striker is still going strong, with 15 goals in 16 Serie A matches. He’s not just a goal-scorer though, with incredible ability to hold up the ball, bring others into the game, engage in the build-up and allow Milan to get up the pitch in transition. His fantastic ability in all of these regards helps make AC Milan one of the most dangerous sides in Serie A, and score all kinds of goals game in, game out.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Zlatan Ibrahimovic for AC Milan in 2020-21 by Mustapha Hassan. Be sure to check out more Player Analyses, and our Stefano Pioli Tactical Analysis for the 2020-21 Serie A season. Thanks for reading and see you soon.