By Jonathan Mitchell
Without meaning to, former AC Milan player and coach Carlo Ancelotti recently identified the primary reason behind the Rossoneri's stuttering start to the season when he remarked that Zlatan Ibrahimovic "has been a determining factor" for the side.
An adductor injury sustained in the lead up to Milan’s visit to Camp Nou to face Barcelona on Champions League duty just over two weeks ago ruled the Swede out of four subsequent competitive fixtures, during which his side managed a solitary victory - a one-goal win against Cesena.
His eagerly anticipated return came in Wednesday's 2-0 win over Czech side Viktoria Plzen. And his immediate impact supported Ancelotti’s assertion that he has been the vital agent in Milan's recent success.
Ibrahimovic was in inspired form as he dropped off the frontline to pull the strings, always prompting and probing at the Czech back four. He was the fulcrum, the catalyst, the pivot - whatever you choose to call it, he embodied the role.
|MATCH FACTS | Milan 2-0 V. Plzen
The second, when it arrived in the 66th minute, came as a result of the sort of magical moment that has earned the 29-year-old his ‘Ibracadabra’ moniker. The 6ft 5in striker plucked Christian Abbiati’s long kick out of the air with a sublime first touch which was executed while simultaneously pirouetting in the air. Then, without blinking, he sent Antonio Cassano in on goal with a perfect slide-rule pass. Cassano’s finish was equally impressive, drawing Cech in before delicately dinking the ball over the advancing shot stopper.
Ibrahimovic’s invention was the crucial component in his side’s ability to break down their opponent’s counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 system.
But, and as strange as it may sound, the significance of the Swede's contribution is not, perhaps, best illustrated by what he did on Wednesday, but what Milan failed to do in his absence; the context is only provided by analysing how they have struggled without him in the side.
Super Swede | Ibrahimovic made the difference for his side
In recent Serie A fixtures against Napoli and Udinese, Milan faced teams who, like the Czechs, looked to sit deep, draw them forward before striking at their heart with lightning counter attacks. Their gameplans also revolved around congesting the centre of the field, safe in the knowledge that Milan’s 4-3-1-2 formation would cause little threat down the flanks. On both occasions, the Rossoneri players, try as they did, failed to produce the necessary craft or cunning to pick their opponent's defensive lock.
If fit and available, one wave of the Ibrahimovic wand might well have seen them find the breakthrough they were searching for, but therein lies the crux of the problem – no team can afford to depend on the presence of one individual to facilitate their capacity to function as an effective unit.
Massimiliano Allegri needs to find solutions to the problems which are exacerbated when his talisman is unavailable, and, at the moment, these two key issues are a lack of width and the slow, and sometimes even downright ponderous, tempo at which they play.
It was no surprise that some of Milan’s more dangerous moments came when they utilised Ignazio Abate's pace down the right. In the 32nd minute, the right-back surged forward, nicked the ball off David Limbersky’s toes and sent over a cross which presented Ibrahomivic with an excellent goal-scoring opportunity. Furthermore, in just 12 minutes on the pitch, summer signing Taye Taiwo steamrollered forward to greater effect than Luca Antonini had managed in the preceeding 78 minutes. Starting with the Nigerian at left-back while encouraging Abate to get forward on the right could be a potential solution.
Introducing or, possibly more accurately, eliciting a dynamic playing style could prove far more problematic, particularly when the coach's midfield options include several players in their mid-30s, namely Mark van Bommel, Clarence Seedorf and Massimo Ambrosini.
Allegri tried, but arguably failed, to address this by playing Urby Emanuelson as a pseudo-trequartista against Plzen, while also continuing with Antonio Nocerino, who appears to have the necessary drive to make a difference but is still struggling to channel it in an effective way. Alberto Aquilani hasn’t set the heather alight either. The solution may, perhaps, have to wait until Kevin-Prince Boateng returns from injury or, looking further afield, the January transfer window.
For now, though, Milan would do well to wrap Ibrahimovic in cotton wool.