Opta Legends Series Part Two - Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Posted 20th December 2019

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Opta Legends Series - Part Two: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

After analysing the legacy of Andrea Pirlo in part one of Opta's Legends Series, part two will examine the self-proclaimed legend, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The Opta Legends series examines the greats of the game through a combination of Opta's traditional and advanced analytical metrics. Each instalment studies a different legend of the game and makes use of advanced metrics such as Expected Goals (xG) and sequences to bring more meaningful insights to the fore when analysing player performance.


READ PART ONE OF OPTA'S LEGENDS SERIES - ANDREA PIRLO

"I don't need a trophy to tell myself that I am the best"

It’s hard to argue with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s self-confidence. Before his move to MLS with LA Galaxy in early 2018, he had won over 30 major trophies in his career, successfully lifting at least one trophy in every season since his debut at Ajax.

His prominence in Europe can be further illustrated by the fact that during his final 10 full seasons in the top five European leagues, only Cristiano Ronaldo (334) and Lionel Messi (328) scored more league goals than the Swedish forward (230). The consistency of his performances was equally impressive, scoring 0.82 goals per 90 minutes played, again only bettered by the same duo.

"You can't coach brilliance like that"

Throughout his career, Ibrahimovic has defied physics with his acrobatic and long-range finishing. While data may struggle to credit him for the freak technical execution of goals like his 35-yard overhead kick for Sweden against England, we can look at his conversion rate of these difficult chances.

We can filter all of Zlatan’s most difficult chances over his last 10 seasons of domestic football by selecting those that had an Expected Goals (xG) value of less than 0.05, or 5%. By doing this, we can isolate his shots that, on average, had a lower than 5% chance of going in. Ibrahimovic has registered 380 shots of this difficulty.

His ability to score spectacular goals from difficult chances is evident. Ibra scored 22 goals from these situations, nearly nine more than Opta’s Expected Goals model would have expected him to.

To put this into perspective, over the same period in the top five European leagues, only two players - Ronaldo (38) and Lionel Messi (34) - scored more goals from chances of this difficulty. These figures are even more remarkable given that the next highest ranked player for goals from this chance difficulty only scored seven.

“The older I get, the better I get, like red wine”

There may be some truth in this adage. The chart below shows that since the 2005/06 season, Zlatan’s xG per shot has increased over time. This change in shot selection means that, on average, he is taking shots from better quality chances. 

Over the course of his career, Ibrahimovic has increased his xG/shot, meaning his his taking shots from better quality chances.

However, while he is taking shots from better quality chances, he is not sacrificing the quantity of these chances. Ibra's shots per 90 have gradually increased since the start of the 2005/06 season, helping him to maintain such impressive goal outputs at each club.

While his increasing xG per shot highlights an intelligence in Zlatan’s shot selection, he may also be adapting his playing style with age and to different leagues. Since leaving AC Milan in the summer of 2012, Zlatan has become less involved in the build-up of his teams' open play sequences. Given that the quantity of his shots has remained consistently high, his reduced involvement in build-up play suggests that he has been able to sustain his attacking output by adjusting to a more direct role where his focus is to finish off the moves.

Using Opta's sequences data, we can see that Ibra's build up involvements per game are steadily falling.

“I decide my future. I decide what I want to do. Nobody else.”

While there are indications that his style of play has changed over time, there is no doubt that Zlatan can still perform at the highest level. Since his contract with LA Galaxy expired last November, Ibrahimovic teased the media and excited a number of former clubs about his next move. One of those, AC Milan, have signed Zlatan on a free transfer until the end of the 2020 season. The Rossoneri will be hoping Ibrahimovic can recover the sparkling form he displayed at the club during his first stay between 2010 and 2012, where he scored 42 goals in 61 games. 

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