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Why Zlatan Ibrahimovic is no longer PSG’s keystone

Lee Davey argues that Zlatan Ibrahimovic should no longer be used by Laurent Blanc in key matches.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is arguably the biggest name to ever wear a Paris Saint-Germain shirt. His presence is unrivalled not only at PSG but in Ligue 1. The Swede has undoubtedly enhanced the profile of Ligue 1 as well as creating history with the capital club.

Ibrahimovic has been the champions’ talisman since arriving from AC Milan in 2011, helping lead the Parisians to three straight Ligue 1 titles, 2 Coupe de la Ligue wins, 1 French Cup triumph and the quarter finals of the Champions League on 3 occasions.

The two-time French player of the year recently became PSG’s all-time top scorer when he hit a brace in the 2-0 win over rivals Marseille, further cementing his place in the history of the club.

After two breath-taking seasons in the French capital, Ibrahimovic suffered a calf injury at the start of the 2014/15 season. This seemed to be a turning point not just for Ibrahimovic but also for the PSG team.

The significance of this was that for the first time since his arrival, his team mates were performing without him, topping their Champions League group and beating a Barcelona side consisting of Lionel Messi and Neymar.

It can be argued that during this 2 month period, PSG played some of their best free flowing football of the season and the likes of Lucas Moura and Edinson Cavani were the main beneficiaries of Ibrahimovic’s absence. Cavani enjoyed a freedom to his game in his favoured position, whilst Lucas Moura played without a fear factor that was evident when playing alongside Ibrahimovic.

It was becoming clear that PSG were learning how to win without Ibrahimovic and more importantly, winning big games without him.

Arguably the most impressive triumph was the Champions League away goals victory at Stamford Bridge in March when Ibrahimovic was sent off in the first half. Ten-man PSG came from behind twice to knock out Chelsea, culminating in a result that made the whole of Europe stand up and take notice.

Beyond that triumphant night in West London and as the season drew to a close, the performances of Ibrahimovic further declined. This was particularly noticeable in the Champions League Quarter Final ties against Barcelona and during arguably his worst performance in a PSG shirt to date, the French Cup final against Auxerre in May.

After a positive 2015/16 pre-season, Ibrahimovic suffered an injury again, this time on the eve of the new Ligue 1 campaign which kept him out until the end of August. During Ibrahimovic’s early season absence, PSG won all of their games and looked convincing in the process. Since the Swede’s return to the side his performances have been below par and a far cry from the Ibrahimovic of seasons gone by. This evoked criticism of his performances by the French media.

His lack of mobility around the pitch this season has been a concern as PSG go in search of domestic and European glory. This was evident in PSG’s recent home goalless draw with Real Madrid where Ibrahimovic had just three touches in the opposing penalty area over the course of 90 minutes of football, further extending his run of poor performances in big games.

He looked far from world-class in comparison to his opponent on the night Cristiano Ronaldo, who threatened PSG throughout. Zlatan’s touch and passing were also way below par and he appeared sluggish and slow.

Admittedly, Ibrahimovic was not the only inept performer on the night; Angel Di Maria and Edinson Cavani were equally as ineffective. They were both replaced but Ibrahimovic, arguably the worst of the three, remained on the field. Laurent Blanc took heat from all sides of the French football media for failing to take the Swede off the field against Real Madrid and was questioned about his decision to rarely substitute the player in a post-match interview. In the very next game, Ibrahimovic was substituted 4 days later against St Etienne in Ligue 1.

There is a perception that Ibrahimovic is a protected species in the PSG squad. The Swede is seldom substituted (11 times in Ligue 1 since 2012) no matter how poorly he performs and this is something that has been reported to have annoyed other members of the PSG squad.

There is no doubt that at 34 years of age Ibrahimovic’s best years are firmly behind him despite his claims in a recent interview with PSG TV that he’s ”getting better with age”.

It should be noted that Ibrahimovic remains a regular goal-scorer for PSG and can still display his magic from time to time –mostly in Ligue 1- but with the striker’s influence on matches evidently diminishing and injuries becoming more frequent, is it time Blanc looks beyond him as an automatic starter in some of PSG’s games?

An observation of the champions’ play in advanced areas of the field clarifies that PSG’s counter attack has been slower and less effective with Ibrahimovic in the front three. The pace and power of Lucas Moura and the creative flair of Javier Pastore are options that Laurent Blanc should look to employ in particular games where PSG need to unlock a compact defence– such as against Real Madrid.

Edinson Cavani has been patient after occupying a wider role far more frequently than he would have liked to during the past two seasons in order to accommodate the Swede. The Uruguayan finished last season as PSG’s top goal scorer in all competitions with 31 goals despite being moved from position to position depending on Ibrahimovic’s fitness. The fact that Ibrahimovic is PSG’s primary free-kick and penalty taker makes Cavani’s total even more impressive.

With Cavani picking up from where he left off last season during this 2015/2016 campaign, it is incontestable that the former Napoli man warrants a starting berth in the centre ahead of Ibrahimovic.

With Ibrahimovic’s stint in Paris coming to an end in June, Blanc should look to PSG’s future and use his three very talented but frustrated South Americans (Cavani, Pastore, Lucas Moura) who can be the cornerstone of a very exciting and successful future in the capital. All three are adversely impacted by the inclusion of a disappointing Ibrahimovic and if the situation fails to change, there is a possibility that they could look at their options away from the Parc des Princes.

The reality of the situation might be that due to boardroom politics at the club, Blanc has no choice but to include Ibrahimovic in his starting XI’s week-in, week-out. However, Laurent Blanc’s future remains very much on the line, with his current deal expiring at the end of the season.

Perhaps it is time for the former French national team coach to take the gamble of dropping the Swede for crucial ties so that PSG might have more of a chance of ultimate success in the Champions League: the only ambition that if Blanc can make a reality that will make himself untouchable in the eyes of the PSG board and the club’s fans.

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