Courtesy of @deeks.man, I was set the task of highlighting the formerly undetected but now widely recognised brilliance of Bobby Firmino. Without wishing to cover old ground, I instead wanted to discuss whether forwards like Firmino or Karim Benzema are more effective at the highest level than Zlatan Ibrahimovic – a man who is arguably one of the most ‘gifted’ forwards of all time.
Now there will be some who argue Zlatan has absolutely been more effective, pointing to his influence in many league title winning campaigns and goals records, not to mention his superior International record playing for a second tier football nation. Whilst I do not dispute that… the argument I wish to put forward is that if there was a high-brow Champions League knockout encounter against an elite team, I would much rather have Firmino or Benzema leading the line than Zlatan Ibrahimovic…
The key reason for Zlatan not being as effective is his gargantuan physique. At 6ft 5, he is simply limited by his height and whilst the slender Zlatan at Ajax was a formidable combination of athleticism and power, once he grew into his body – he simply became too bulky to be able to move like other tall players such as Van Basten and Cristiano Ronaldo. From a defender’s perspective, it is much easier (if you are physically strong and aerially fearless) to come up against a static target man. Their movements are easier to pick up, they are more predictable, and you don’t need to worry about them running in behind. Everything is in front of you.
In contrast, Firmino and Benzema are more slippery customers. You can try and stay touch tight but you could find yourself in midfield with a gaping hole behind you for their wide forward colleagues to exploit. Furthermore these types of strikers tend to be economical with the ball, popping it off to team mates and thus avoiding a wrestling match with the centre back, much to the defenders frustration.
The reason why forwards like Firmino and Benzema function so well in star-studded teams and front-lines such as ‘BBC’ is that they’re incredibly selfless and accepting of the fact they’re not the elite attacker of their respective sides. It means they are willing to make runs just to get their more illustrious team mates into space and lay it off rather than go for goal if they’re not in the best position. They also are happy to work hard in the press.. a key requirement of the modern forward.
In contrast, Zlatan is more of an old school 9, demanding to be the star of the show and for the team to work around him. It is what made him a bad fit at Barcelona, where he wanted to put on the same pedestal as Messi and wasn’t content with playing a supporting role. Luis Suarez despite not being a ‘False 9’ is a lot more humble than a Zlatan in terms of his playing style which has enabled him to combine well with Messi.
The remainder of the article will involve an in-depth look at each player's forays in the Champions League and assess their impact on the business end of the Champions League. I have particularly focused on Ibrahimovic and Firmino, as Benzema's record pretty much speaks for itself and is more common knowledge. I have also provided commentary on the level of difficulty certain opponents provide but feel free to disagree.
Zlatan’s first foray into the Champions League was with Ajax during the 2002/2003 campaign where the young man opened his account with a brace against Lyon… with the first goal a beautifully worked sole effort, beating a man by the edge of the box before curling it at the far post. In the second group stage, Ibrahimovic scored against a strong Roma outfit (with the likes of Cafu and Batistuta) but struggled against an experienced Milan backline– failing to score any goals as Ajax lost 2-3 on aggregate.
Zlatan’s second foray into the Champions League was with Juventus, who possessed a star studded side containing the likes of Buffon, Cannavaro, Thuram, Nedved, Zambrotta and Del Piero. Despite the improvement in support cast, Zlatan was consistently ineffective, failing to score a single goal during the 2004/2005 campaign, despite Juventus making it to the quarter finals.
The following season Zlatan scored three goals in the group stage, getting on the score sheet against minnows Rapid Wein of Austria but failing to net in open play against Bayern Munich (scoring a consolation goal from a corner kick in a 2-1 loss). In the knockout stages, he failed to register a single goal as Trezeguet highlighted the gulf between them in terms of being ‘effective’ on the big stage.
Zlatan then moved to Inter Milan where he failed to score a single goal during the 2006/2007 Champions League campaign. He started the 2007/2008 campaign well but it was versus weak opposition, a PSV side where Ibrahim Affelay was the star player and a shadow of the team that took Milan to the brink a few years prior. The first serious side Inter faced was Liverpool… who subdued the Swede, rendering him goalless yet again.
In 2008/2009, Zlatan scored a solitary goal during the group stage before putting in a strong hold-up display against a ruthless Manchester United defence who didn’t give him a sight of goal. This was nevertheless his most confident European big-match showing since the start of his career but it was sadly to no avail.
After complaining about being driven like a Fiat despite being a Ferrari, Zlatan was loaned out to AC Milan for the 2010/2011 season, where he was again dominant in the group stage against the likes of Auxerre and a talented Ajax side. In the knockout stages, Zlatan was outshone by Peter Crouch, who led Tottenham Hotspurs to victory with the Swede finishing goalless.
In the 2011/2012 Season, Milan and Zlatan performed well again in the opening stage, giving Barcelona a run for their money. In the knockouts, Zlatan scored a solitary penalty (against Arsenal) but failed to show up in the Quarter Final rematch against Barcelona when it truly counted.
Ibrahimovic’s next challenge was to lead the line for PSG. He was maturing like a fine wine by this stage of his career, to the extent he ended the season as the assists leader in the 2012/2013 Champions League, providing seven assists. He also scored against Barcelona in the first leg of the Quarter-Finals in arguably his most effective big match display and was unfortunate to not take PSG into the semis.
The following season, Zlatan scored 10 goals in the Champions League. 8 of them came in the Group Stage, and 2 of them came in the first leg of the Round of 16 tie against Bayer Leverkusen. Zlatan was wasteful in the quarter final where an in-form PSG side were pipped to the post by a dogged Chelsea side lacking the sparkle of previous squads.
Zlatan was to lose his cool during the knockout stages of the 2014/2015 season as he got a red card in a tight second leg tie against Chelsea. Fortunately his colleagues rallied in his absence and held on to win on away goals to set up a tie with Barcelona. In the absence of Ibrahimovic, Barcelona led by MSN trashed the Parisian outfit.
In his final season at PSG, Zlatan again highlighted his increasing effectiveness at the highest level by scoring the opener in the 39th minute with a free kick to help his team win 2–1 in the first leg of the Round of 16 tie against Chelsea. He followed it up with an assist for a goal for Adrien Rabiot and scoring another goal in the second leg.
In the quarter final, Zlatan missed a penalty and a plethora of chances, as City went into the lead through De Bruyne. An uncharacteristic error from Man City, a lackadaisical pass out from there keeper was intercepted by Ibrahimović whose interception rolled into an open goal.
We have a more limited sample of games to look at with Firmino whose Champions League exploits begin with the 2017/2018 season. As it is Firmino netted in the Round of 16 against Porto, and then against Manchester City in the Quarter Finals. In the emphatic first leg at Anfield, Firmino setup Salah for the first goal and scored a meaningless goal in the second leg, where it was all said and done.
In the semi finals against Roma, Firmino was in electrifying form scoring a brace, and assisting Salah for the Egyptians two goals. In the second leg, Firmino assisted Mane for the first goal in what was a nervy tie at the Stadio Olympico. In the final, Liverpool faced Spanish giants Real Madrid. It was an even tie initially with Firmino arguably looking the least dangerous of Liverpool’s attackers but this façade of equality was shattered when Salah was brutally taken out of the game by the master of the dark arts, Sergio Ramos. Liverpool still held on but a series of howlers by Karius, simply left them with too much to do.
The following season, Liverpool would face a tough tie in the Round of 16… against Bayern Munich. The game passed Firmino by as he failed to register any goals or assists. He made amends by scoring in both legs of the Quarter-Finals against Porto, a weaker opponent than Bayern. In the dramatic Semi-Finals against Barcelona, Firmino was injured and came on as a late sub for the first game but absent for the second game. In the final, he was quiet and was subbed off on the 58th minute.
The following season, Liverpool were knocked out in the Round of 16, but Firmino almost won the game for Liverpool before a shock salvo by Atletico in extra time snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Benzema scored in the semi finals in the 2012/2013 Champions League season against a strong Dortmund side and followed it up with goals in semi finals against Bayern Munich both in the 2013/2014 and 2017/2018 seasons. He followed it up with the first goal of the final against Liverpool in what was becoming a cagey affair… thus proving himself as a dangerous forward on the elite stage and the perfect foil for Ronaldo and Bale. For the record, he has won the Champions League 4 times.
If you wanted to pick a striker who could drive an ailing team to success, or be the ‘star’ of a team – there is no denying that Zlatan Ibrahimovic excels in this regard in comparison to Firmino and Benzema. But in the modern game, to win the biggest trophies.. you need a multitude of threats coming from a variety of angles and at a very high tempo.
Furthermore the attack is now considered the first line of defence and the centre-forward is very rarely the best player in the team. In this respect, Zlatan is an analogue forward in a modern game where most strikers operate in a ‘false’ forward manner, looking to drift wide or deep and combining with their wide forwards. Hence why in the biggest games, you would much prefer a False 9 like a Firmino or Benzema, as even if they don’t score.. they’ll elevate the rest of the team rather than be a millstone around its neck.
A final point to make is that Firmino's big match record against truly elite european sides is no better than Zlatan's. Nevertheless I would still wager he would have been a better fit in the 2009/2010 edition of Barcelona than the Swede and if Zlatan was in this Liverpool side - they would not be winning the Champions League. Firmino is still growing as a player and has a few more years left but at the moment, it is Karim Benzema who is the most proven forward at the highest level of the game.. with goals against the best sides in the game.