Zlatan Ibrahimovic's deadly skill on free kicks has made a huge difference for PSG and has made the striker nearly unstoppable.
By Jonathan Johnson (@Jon_LeGossip)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s free kick that gave Paris Saint-Germain the lead in Sunday’s final Ligue 1 fixture of 2013 against Lille OSC was the Swede’s fifth in his short time so far in French football.
Including three free kicks for the Blue-Yellows against England, Norway and Portugal since 2012, Ibra has scored eight times directly from set pieces in his time in France and is constantly enhancing his reputation as one of the game’s most dangerous players from range.
Olympique de Marseille, OGC Nice, Stade Brestois, FC Sochaux-Montbeliard and now Lille can vouch for the 32-year-old’s prowess from outside of the area. All have witnessed his ability to thump home from long distances first-hand and, despite never being regarded as a member of the top echelon of dead-ball specialists, Ibrahimovic is now increasingly being regarded as one of world football’s most reliable free-kick experts.
Why this seemingly sudden explosion of potency from set pieces since arriving in France?
It is not as if Ibrahimovic has become a dangerous free-kick taker overnight—he has had the ability to score from long range since early in his career. His wonder-strike against RSC Anderlecht in the Champions League earlier this season was also clocked at 100 km/h and hit in a manner similar to his dead-ball efforts.
However, his increased focus on set pieces is likely a reflection of what he has learned since arriving in Le Championnat. France’s top-flight is renowned for its tough defences that can test even the best of strikers.
Going all the way back to the Swede’s first game in France, a 2-2 draw against FC Lorient in which he scored twice, Ibra learned quickly and adapted to his competition. Free kicks are likely one of the weapons identified by the PSG man to overcome stubborn resistance.
Coming up against the brutal physicality of a player like Les Merlus’ Bruno Ecuele Manga was a great introduction to French football. The talismanic Swede was immediately involved in a running battle with FCL’s captain and it evidently taught him all he needed to know, lessons that take many other strikers—including AS Monaco’s Radamel Falcao—months to learn.
Since then, we have seen Ibrahimovic place greater importance on how free kicks are used and, under Laurent Blanc, PSG have also become more prolific from corners. In short, scoring from a free kick takes away the need to break down tough defensive units all the time and can alleviate frustrating instances when the champions fail to score from time to time.
Another part of the reason, though, could just be because Ibrahimovic is now undoubtedly the main man in Paris, so free kicks fall under his jurisdiction and he can enjoy a monopoly over the best chances. This was not always true when playing for some of his former sides that had more established set-piece takers that dominated dead balls, and he had to share the honours.
Ibrahimovic has refined the art of shooting with immense power and has now turned his talents from scoring mainly in open play and from penalties into a dangerous weapon from long-distance set pieces.
PSG are not the only ones to have benefitted from his improvement from outside of the area.
The Swedish national team have seen Ibra score three times from long range since 2012, once against England in a friendly (see above), then against Scandinavian neighbours Norway and recently against Portugal in the World Cup qualifying play-offs.
The mercurial Swede has clearly identified free kicks as a potentially rich supply of goal scoring chances and, particularly before PSG signed Edinson Cavani, a way for the side from the French capital to break the deadlock against particularly stubborn defences that were costing them results domestically.
Despite his current success, though, there is room for improvement.
In most matches the towering striker gets an average of two or three chances from dead balls. Although many only miss by a narrow margin, Ibrahimovic will no doubt feel that he could test the goalkeeper more often.
This is true of his all-round play and not just from set pieces, though.
So far this year, the Swede’s statistics show that out of 91 shots at goal, only 35 have been on target. PSG create a massive number of opportunities, but Ibrahimovic is wasteful at times despite his impressive scoring tally.
With a little more practice, Ibra could easily become one of the world’s leading free-kick experts in addition to already being one of the most prolific strikers around.
Is there anything that this man cannot do?