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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The Zlatan has AC Milan atop Serie A, and what’s old is new again

He’s back with a vengeance.
He’s back with a vengeance.
Illustration: (AP)

There is something about seeing AC Milan in first in Serie A that stirs long dead emotions. At least to those of us of a certain age (namely, those who still listen to GNR). The Rossoneri atop the table harkens back to the last days of Italy being home to the world’s best league, where all the legends went to truly test themselves. Back to the star-studded force of Maldini, Cafu, Pirlo, Gattuso, Seedorf, Kaka, Shevchenko, Crespo. Back when the mere mention of these last names would cause a glint in the eye of any fan, recalling memories of true art, and visions of sipping wine on some riverbank, mind-numbingly delicious food, or passing out in George Clooney’s house on Lake Como or whatever dreams we all have had of a true Italian life.

There’s still a long way to go in this season, of course, but Milan looks like it might be charging back into relevance for the first time in nearly a decade, and it’s another name from the past that’s leading them. That would be one Zlatan Ibrahimović, who is leading not just Milan in scoring, but the whole damn league with 10 goals in just six games. And he’s doing it at age 39. Just yesterday, he scored twice to lead Milan to one of its biggest wins of the season, away at Napoli (though Napoli have spent a good seven or eight years playing the role of various teams’ “biggest win of the season”).

Zlatan is the seventh-oldest player to score at all in the Serie A in the last 30 years. And it’s something of an odd curve, seeing as how Ibrahimović came over to the U.S. for what was supposed to be the normal MLS retirement tour for fading legends. Usually, names casual fans might recognize from Nike ads or World Cups come over in their mid-30s, wander around for a year or two while still looking the classiest player on the field, and then head back to Europe for either a managing career or just to sit in the sun between occasional TV gigs.

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Zlatan came over, kicked the shit out of everyone for thoroughly underwhelming L.A. Galaxy teams for two seasons, and realized it was a waste of his time. So back to Milan at 37 he went, and had a more-than-respectable 10 goals in about half of a season for it in 2019-2020.

How’s he doing it? Well, even at 39, someone like Zlatan can just get on a heater. He’s wildly outperforming his underlying numbers, and basically everything is going in. An insane 62 percent of his shots on target have found the net, when his career average is 30 percent (which is still really good!). Zlatan has been able to get more shots on target this season than he did last season, mostly because he doesn’t do much else but wait around to shoot. Those 39-year-old legs aren’t really meant for “pressing,” or “taking up defenders for teammates” or “moving.”

But he doesn’t have to. Milan has lined up Alexis Saelemaekers and Hakan Çalhanoğlu either right beside him, or right behind him, and they’re more than happy to do all the work that Zlatan would tell you is beneath him (everything is beneath him in his world) but in reality can’t get around to. Çalhanoğlu leads the league in key passes by a distance (passes that lead directly to a scoring chance), while he and Saelemaekers do the pressing up high to win the ball back early to feed Ibrahimović.

Aside from Zlatan, this Milan side is shockingly young, with six or seven regular starters who are 23 or younger. Having a beacon like Zlatan to guide them is a blessing in theory, though we’re talking about a guy who had a rib broken by a teammate and whose idea of a good joke used to be kicking his teammates in the head.

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Can Milan roll back the years and claim the Scudetto? If you dig through the normal crap about “experience” and get to the tangible stuff, you’ll find this isn’t a particularly good defensive team. Which is to be expected given the average starting age of its backline is somewhere around “waiting for their balls to drop.” As, or maybe even more, integral to Milan’s success has been goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who has been the next big thing in goalkeeping for about five years and is still only 21. He was starting regularly in net for Milan when he was 16. With his coming of age, or just finally starting to need to shave, Donnarumma has Milan conceding far fewer goals than the metrics suggest they should, like by nearly 200 percent per 90 minutes over the next best team in the category. Donnarumma has been billed as ascending to the best keeper in the world status for a while, and maybe he is just this good. He’s going to have to be if Milan is going to keep this up.

Some of that assumes that Zlatan will have to slow down at some point. Even yesterday he limped off with some hamstring trouble. And yet Milan aren’t burdened by Champions League duties in the midweek like other challengers Inter or Juventus or Lazio. They’re in the Europa League, though its commitment to that is not total, or at least hasn’t been so far.

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But this is the Zlatan. Question him at your peril. He never does.

 

We can't be too careful. Two guys in an airport...talking? It's a little fishy.

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