Only A Dummy Would Think Sweden Is Better Off With Zlatan

The speculation began even before Sweden beat Italy to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and once that final whistle blew everyone wanted to know what was going through the mind of one Zlatan Ibrahimovic. 

Would the great Zlatan shirk international retirement to lead the Swedes into Russia like some sort of Charles XII? Could Sweden’s record goal scorer return to the Blue-Yellow and in the country’s first World Cup since 2006?

The answer is pretty much no, and even if he wanted to come back, Sweden would be stupid to take him with them to Russia. 

Sweden qualified for the World Cup through one of the toughest gauntlets possible in UEFA, dispatching the Netherlands and Italy along the way, not to mention beating France. They did so not in spite of Ibrahimovic’s absence but because of it.

There’s no doubt when Ibrahimovic was in his prime, he was a must-start player for Sweden. He’s the nation’s all-time leading scorer with 62 goals in 116 matches. But those days are long gone. 

At 36, the Manchester United striker is a hulking presence whose mere gravity sucks the ball to him. He can still distribute and shoot with the best of them, but when he’s the focal point of the entire team, the Swedish collective unit suffers. 

This was apparent in the 2016 Euros, when Sweden finished last in its group. Sweden’s only goal came via a Ciaran Clark own goal in a 1-1 draw with Ireland before a pair of toothless 1-0 defeats to Italy and Belgium. 

In years past, Swedish tactics were often built around how to get the best out of their 6'5" striker up front. Ibrahimovic retired following the 2016 Euros and coach Janne Andersson took over soon thereafter. Since then, Sweden is performing better than it did during the Zlatan era. 

Zlatan Sweden Return

Zlatan. Photo: @PlayersSayings | Twitter

Sweden has exceeded expectations without its biggest star because of the infusion of youth and experience. While nations like Italy have struggled to move beyond their old stars, Sweden has found the right balance — something that couldn’t have been accomplished had Ibrahimovic stuck around. 

Dating back to Ibrahimovic’s start with the national team at the turn of the millennium, Sweden scored 1.66 goals per match from up until his retirement in 2016. Since then, the Blue-Yellow are scoring 2.28 goals per match. That’s a not-insignificant increase of more than half a goal per game.

The scoring boon hasn’t come at the cost of defensive solidity; Sweden’s defensive numbers now (1.0 goals allowed per match) are nearly identical to what they were in the Zlatan era (0.98 goals allowed per match). 

If there was a grand Zlatan Sweden return, he would almost immediately undo all the hard work Andersson and the rest of the Swedish national team have done in creating a new identity. You can’t just throw someone like Ibrahimovic into a squad without major changes to the team’s personality and character. The team would have to rethink its entire tactical plans to accommodate the larger-than-life figure. 

Ibrahimovic playing at the 2018 World Cup would be something most football fans would love to see. He’s an incredible talent combining size, athleticism and supreme technique and vision. But only a dummy would actually think Sweden would be better off with him in the squad.

Thankfully for those who want to see Sweden actually play well in Russia, Andersson has no interest in welcoming the great Zlatan back into the fold. He’s no dummy. 

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