When rookie Emil Cuello misplayed a through ball that would have sent Zlatan Ibrahimovic in on goal during the late stages of LA’s victory over FC Cincinnati, the striker theatrically collapsed to the ground, almost sinking into the turf before sitting up and staring at the match he had just checked out of.
Life on the pitch hasn’t been fun lately for the Lion of Los Angeles. After failing to get on the board during the Cali Clasico, Zlatan is in a mini-slump having scored just twice the past six matches. Add the self-inflicted suspension for grabbing the neck of NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson, and Ibra has two goals in the Galaxy’s last eight league outings.
Obviously this isn’t entirely on the big Swede. A lack of quality service from the wings, an inconsistent attack and lineup changes are just a few of the disruptions which have prevented the LA Galaxy from fully unlocking Ibra’s genius. Even world-class strikers need clear cut chances.
That being said, is there something off with Ibra?
Is Zlatan on the ropes?
At the beginning of the season Ibra had added a Muhammed Ali like edge to his game, honing his competitive instincts to transform defensive matchups into personal battles of wills. Playing close to the edge became a perilously dangerous risk as the incidents began to grow in number, but with nine goals in his first eight games the strategy was working for Zlatan.
Since returning from suspension, we haven’t seen that same fiery character. With opposing players gunning for Ibra, you would expect an adjustment from Zlatan to avoid further punishment from the league. But has dialing back the edge robbed Ibra of his competitive spirit? Zlatan’s words following the FC Cincinnati match hint at a warrior still figuring out how to express himself on the pitch.
Though we suspect Ibra will snap out of it sooner or later, the issue compounds what has grown into a difficult situation for Ibrahimovic.
No one denies Zlatan is a lethal finisher capable of brilliance, but his goals come at a cost. Accommodating the 37-year old and his lack of mobility prevents LA from transitioning nor counter-attacking as quickly as they’d like, and as a result the Galaxy brand of football in 2019 has relied on methodical buildups far too predictable at times. Most of Zlatan’s goals have come from outmuscling defenders in the box and swinging at half-chances from a stationary position.
Should Ibra continue to struggle in front of net, not only will the Golden Boot title slip away, the club may start to think about moving on in 2020.
If this story sounds vaguely familiar to seasoned Galaxy fans, they may have heard it before. The challenge Ibra is facing has similar conditions to what the legendary David Beckham experienced during his contentious spell with the club following a six-month loan at AC Milan.
As the biggest name to play for the Galaxy since...David Beckham, Ibra arrived as an international superstar and made a huge splash, introducing himself in typical Zlatan fashion before turning El Trafico into the greatest game in league history, carving a space for himself in the pantheon of famous LA athletic heroes in the process. Not bad for a few night’s work.
Fast forward well over a year since Zlatan’s heroics to the present, and Ibra remains an immensely popular figure, but some of the luster has faded. Fans are no longer hanging onto his every word, and despite eleven goals this season his latest histrionics have some supporters losing patience with the big Swede. Now the highest paid player in the league, the responsibility on Ibrahimovic to lead an attack built around his production has only grown despite playing with a talented but uneven roster which isn’t ideally suited to his strengths.
It all came to a head for Beckham during a highly publicized friendly vs. AC Milan. Boos rained down on the Englishman with every touch, and at one point a fan jumped from the stands after an angry David motioned in his direction.
Like Zlatan’s recent theatrics in Cincinnati, the atmosphere that day wasn’t a pretty sight but the incident forced Beckham to look in the mirror and reflect on what became a turning point: David realized he was never going to succeed as Beckham the International Superstar. He’d have to find another gear.
All great competitors adapt in the quest for success, and in Beckham’s case it wasn’t all that difficult in the end. Already a model professional on and off the field, Becks just needed to fully commit himself to the Galaxy league quirks and all, and the rest is history. (Of course Bruce helped a bit)
In Ibra’s defense, personnel issues have contributed to his struggles. Half the starting lineup has spent June participating in Copa America and the Gold Cup, and it would be foolish to overlook how the loss of Romain Alessandrini has impacted his production.
The good news is help is on the way. Once the likes of Jona dos Santos, Uriel Antuna and Giancarlo Gonzalez are back in the team, Zlatan and the Galaxy’s fortunes alike should improve. And with Dennis de Kloese at the helm, this club might not be done making moves.
Zlatan’s 33 goals in 41 league appearances tells the story. If Ibra can get back on track and the coaching staff can figure out to best feed the lion, the Galaxy have every oppurtunity of lifting a sixth MLS Cup.