TFC’s next assignment: Stopping Zlatan Ibrahimovic

LA-Galaxy-forward-Zlatan-Ibrahimovic-celebrates-a-goal.

LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic. (Chris Carlson/AP)

TORONTO – Zlatan Ibrahimovic is loving life in Major League Soccer.

Although the LA Galaxy are going through some turmoil at the moment – Sigi Schmid stepped down as coach on Monday, and the California club is on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture – Ibrahimovic has made a big impact during his first season in MLS.

The Super Swede marked his debut for L.A. in spectacular fashion back in March, coming on as a substitute to score twice – including a goal of the season candidate from 45 yards out – to guide the Galaxy to an amazing come-from-behind win over LAFC.

Ibrahimovic hasn’t slowed down since then, scoring 16 goals, tallying eight assists and taking 40 shots on goal (third-most in the league) in 21 appearances for LA. He’s mired in a dry spell at the moment, with just one goal in his last six matches. But the lanky Swede will be foremost on the mind of Toronto FC defenders on Saturday night when the Galaxy pay a visit to BMO Field.

Ibrahimovic’s reputation precedes him, scoring at a regular rate wherever he’s played, be it Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United. He’s earned a reputation as one of his generation’s most prolific goal scorers, combining creativity, strength and power, aerial prowess and technical ability into an overall dangerous package.

So, how do you go about stopping – or at the very least, containing – the Swede?

TFC coach Greg Vanney has a few ideas. He argues the big mistake defenders often make in trying to shut down the six-foot-five-inch Ibrahimovic is they try to get too physical with him in hopes of knocking him off the ball or stripping him of possession. That’s a recipe for disaster, according to Vanney.

“You always have to be aware of Ibrahimovic and where he’s at, but it’s less so about trying to take him off the ball and more about managing him when he gets the ball. He’s so big and strong that if you physically try to take him off the ball, you’re going to lose a lot of those battles and expose yourself in the process,” Vanney told Sportsnet.

“It’s about understanding the battles you can win and the battles you can’t win against him.”

When Ibrahimovic is in or near the 18-yard box, you have to get physical with the Swede in order to quickly shut him down, Vanney advises. But when he’s further back, let him have the ball and try to minimize his influence by playing off of him a little bit.

“I think what tends to happen with guys his size, and Didier Drogba was another one, is if you spend a lot of energy trying to deny them the ball and physically compete against them, they use that against you and you end up on the wrong side of the play. He’s too big, he’s too strong and he’s too technical,” Vanney offered.

“As a defender, if you’re trying to deny him the ball, he’ll make you pay. But if you understand he has the position, and he receives the ball and you just turn him into a passer and make him play a neutral pass, you can manage him much better.”

Vanney also warns that TFC can’t allow Saturday’s game to become a run-and-shoot contest, and that the Reds have to control possession and dictate the pace.

“If L.A. comes out and presses us, if we can break that initial line of pressure – it’s not like Ibrahimovic is dropping back deep to help defend, he’s going to sit up top and wait – it leaves their back line a little bit exposed because their [forwards] don’t put in a ton of defensive work when the ball is on the other side of them. We can’t be impatient and allow the game to go back and forth because that plays into Zlatan’s hands,” Vanney warned.

Drew Moor will be front and centre on Saturday as part of a TFC defence that will attempt to keep Ibrahimovic off the score sheet. He echoed Vanney’s sentiment about the importance of picking your battles against the LA forward.

“When I think of guys like Zlatan, I don’t want to get so close to them they are able to use their strength against me. I’m strong, but I’m not as strong as he is,” Moor told Sportsnet.

“You have to play off of him a little bit, even if it means he receives the ball, even if means he’ll win headers off goal kicks. Give him that space, but when he is looking to shoot and looking to pass, that’s when you close him down and get tight.”

Another way to stop Ibrahimovic is to cut off his service. Teammates are always looking for him and trying to get him the ball, so focus your attention on them.

“One way to stop Zlatan is to deny service into him. … Anytime there’s a teammate on the ball looking to get it to him, get tight to the player and double-team him if you can. Be a nuisance and don’t give him too much time and space to find Zlatan,” Moor said.

A veteran of 14 MLS seasons, Moor has gone up against some of the top international forwards to have played in the league, including Drogba and David Villa, to say nothing of the fact he faces teammate Sebastian Giovinco in practice on a regular basis.

Moor has never tested his wits against Ibrahimovic, and he’s looking forward to it.

“You want to get up for every game. But there’s players who have played in the World Cup, played in the [UEFA] Champions League, who have won many trophies over the course of their careers, like Zlatan, and it excites you a little bit. It’s going to be a big test, and I like these big tests,” Moor said.

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