The difference at Milan pre- and post-January 2020 is about as stark as the difference in red and blue on both Milan clubs’ shirt. Following his return to the Diavoli just over 14 months ago, the 39-year-old has scored 28 goals in 45 matches.
A leader both on and off the pitch, the immense impact he has made at the club certainly made his much-hyped return more heroic, having led the Milan attack with brute force, determination and above all, goals. Milan’s upturn in form saw them produce a mesmeric 27-match unbeaten Serie A streak over 2020, with the Swede undoubtedly at the forefront of this impressive run, lifting his teammates’ game and demanding more from a group of young and growing individuals.
His initial six-month contract was deservedly extended by a year in the summer, and the numbers once again show he has repaid his employers’ faith, producing a return of 17 goals and three assists in 25 games played across all competitions so far this campaign.
The well-travelled frontman has now prolonged his Rossoneri adventure by yet another season, with the Swedish star insistent on continuing at the highest level and confidence in his own ability to produce the goods for the Italian club.
But are Milan taking too much of a gamble in extending their star man’s stay at Milanello?
The benefits of keeping him around have been much-publicised and are plain to see: his goals, experience, leadership abilities and mentorship to his young colleagues – or “25 sons”, as he once referred to them – cannot be denied. Milan is a different team with him on the field: along with being a monstrous focal point in attack, his beady-eyed glares and often fearful barks keep his teammates in check and force them to be at their very best for the full 90 minutes.
However, the possible adverse effects of his stay, from a practical, developmental and financial point of view, need to be considered.
A blatantly evident and often-mentioned fact is the player’s age. It is undoubtedly highly-applaudable what the 39-year-old has been able to produce this late into his career, but considering he will turn 40 barely two months into next season, this is an undisputed red flag. Milan have been in near free-fall for the better part of the last decade, their fifth-place finish in the 2018-19 season marking their best league finish in the past eight years.
Their form over the majority of the past 12 months shows signs of the European giant slowly awakening from its ten-year slumber, with both the club and fans alike no doubt expecting silverware of some kind soon as concrete proof of the club’s growth. But is an ageing 40-year-old the right man to lead them to a first trophy – bar the 2016 Italian Super Cup – in 11 years?
Since Ibrahimovic’s highly-anticipated return in January last year, Milan have been involved in 73 fixtures across all competitions. The Swede missed 24 of those due to injury, which includes four games missed after contracting COVID. Another two matches were missed for disciplinary reasons, meaning the star striker was unavailable for a third of the matches scheduled – certainly an eyebrow-raising amount for a player of his stature and influence on the team.
This concern was further highlighted by Ibrahimovic’s absence in Milan’s last two fixtures, a 2-1 midweek loss to Sassuolo and Monday’s 3-0 loss to Lazio, due to muscle fatigue.
Add to this that he has once more availed himself to the Swedish national team, with a firm target of featuring in this summer’s European Championships, keeping an eye on the 2022 World Cup.
That would mean both less recovery time and a greater chance of exposing himself to potential injury, neither of which would suit his Italian employers.
Another factor when considering his age is the fact that a player’s drop-off – that is, their inability to maintain their high level of performance with age – may be gradual, or in many cases, sudden. Ibrahimovic has certainly proved many doubters and scientists wrong over the past year, yet with just one goal in his past eight matches, his productivity rate may be on an unstoppable and understandably natural decline. To expect him to maintain the same level he has over the past 14 months next season may be somewhat unrealistic, even for Zlatan.
Even if he won’t be expected to start every game, Ibrahimovic is most certainly a player who would want to, and will not be pleased with any back-up role. Milan will undoubtedly need to invest in their attack in the summer, but any potential target may be discouraged from joining the Rossoneri with the knowledge that their playing time will have to be shared with the Swede.
Therefore, Milan’s upward trajectory could plateau by keeping a possibly injury-plagued and less productive Ibrahimovic instead of investing in a younger and fitter striker to build the team around a long-term investment.
The Rossoneri have dug deep into their coffers in keeping the Swedish superstar for another year. In this rebuilding phase at Milan, where cost-cutting measures have been continually highlighted by club CEO Ivan Gazidis, along with financial implications as a result of the COVID pandemic, there is the thought that this money could have been better spent elsewhere.
Either by giving in to the demands of current stars Gianluigi Donnarumma and Hakan Calhanoglu and securing their mid-term futures at the club, or handing out well-deserved pay rises to standout players such as Franck Kessie and Davide Calabria.
Last but not least, the club could have invested more money in the likes of Dusan Vlahovic, Gianluca Scamacca or Andrea Belotti as long term replacements for the Swede.
There is absolutely no doubting Ibrahimovic’s positive impact at Milan following his second coming. At first glance, it seems a no-brainer to keep the swashbuckling Swede in the red and black for another season.
The attention he attracts helps take the pressure off his younger teammates, his leadership and experience are second-to-none at the club, and he somehow still finds his way onto the scoresheet on a more than regular basis. However, a critical look shows the potential this gamble has to cause adverse effects in the long-term, even for the self-proclaimed “God”.
And as is the belief in the Christian faith, even God rested on the seventh day.