#IZBACK, the hashtag used to inform the football world that Zlatan Ibrahimovic was headed back home to Milan.
Last week, news spread like wildfire that the Swedish international would rejoin with his former club AC Milan, agreeing to a deal until the end of the 2019/20 season with an option to extend the contract for 2020/21.
The Malmo-born striker, who most recently plied his trade in Major League Soccer with LA Galaxy, spent two seasons with the Rossoneri from 2010-12, scoring 56 goals in 85 appearances and playing a significant role in the club obtaining their 18th Scudetto and the Italian SuperCup.
Here are three things to watch for in the 38 year old’s second spell at San Siro.
Rossoneri Reaction to Arrival
There is no doubt that Ibrahimovic is box office, a main attraction that organically garners attention and intrigue. The lion persona he confidently embraces isn’t all that ridiculous either when you consider his overall body of work that spans four decades.
Throughout a playing career which involves stops at Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and LA Galaxy, the Swede has recorded a total of 788 appearances and 473 goals. Among the various awards he has stockpiled his trophy cabinet with are five scoring titles (twice in Serie A), 11 Guldbollen honors (best Swedish footballer), and countless domestic titles few could rival. But, as impressive as all that may be, the fact is Ibrahimovic returns to Milan facing one of the biggest challenges of his career - helping wake a fallen red and black giant.
When he first arrived to Milan in 2010 from Barcelona, Ibrahimovic not only illuminated the San Siro himself, but his own talents and the aura that permeates his existence brushed off on others in the squad and elevated individuals to new heights. Names like Antonio Nocerino, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Alexandre Pato, Robinho and Antonio Cassano each enjoyed strong runs of success with Ibrahimovic as the focal point of the attack. However, unlike the previous stint where the squad dynamic was a balanced blend of experience and youth, Ibrahimovic now enters as the elder statesman, a chaperone for the youth.
Beyond goalscoring, which undoubtedly remains a priority and is of paramount importance in bringing Ibrahimovic back, manager Stefano Pioli hopes the Swede’s starpower, experience as a globetrotter and ability to deal with pressure can help one of Serie A’s youngest sides come out of their shell and grow.
Level of Production
On a personal level, Ibrahimovic’s most recent journey in America was quite successful, scoring 52 goals in 56 matches for the Galaxy. Although the goal of more trophies was not met, the production lends credence to a footballer who still has plenty to offer at 38, even if the quality of MLS pales in comparison to Europe and is much more difficult.
Milan’s offensive struggles this season are well documented, with the club having just struck the back of the net an abysmal 16 times in 18 matches. For context, Atalanta - one of the league’s most potent attacking sides, a top four contender and current UEFA Champions League Round of 16 finalist - have scored THREE TIMES the amount as the Rossoneri domestically with 48 goals. Expensive January 2019 signing Krzysztof Piatek has scored 4 goals in 18 appearances, one of which has come from open play. Theo Hernandez, a left-back, is equal with the Pole, which tells you everything there is to know about the dire need for scoring. Even if Ibrahimovic can deliver half of what he previously did during 2010-12 with Milan, it would be considered a massive improvement.
Certainly, all eyes will be fixated on Ibrahimovic to see if he can be the solution up front and help unlock one of the league’s worst offences these next six months.
Ceiling for Second Half
After drawing Sampdoria 0-0 at home to begin 2020, Milan find themselves in 12th place on 22 points, trailing 4th place Roma by 13 points. We keep bringing up 4th and emphasize the importance of its position for the simple fact that the Rossoneri must finish their to qualify for the UEFA Champions League next season, a competition which they have not featured in since 2013/14.
Last season, Gennaro Gattuso’s Milan missed out by one point of the UCL on the final matchday, so the massive regression has been devastating on the fans’ mental. At this stage, the odds are stacked heavily against the club to place 4th and will require a miracle from Ibrahimovic, Pioli and the rest of the squad to overturn this massive deficit. But, fans know well enough by now to temper their expectations and just hope their beloved club can experience some semblance of hope in a revival by seeing progression on a week to week basis that points them in the right direction.