Why Zlatan Ibrahimovic failed at Barcelona?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is widely regarded as one of the finest football players of his entire generation and quite likely of the entire century as a whole. The Swede has played in the best clubs in the world and proven his worth in the best leagues, but his time in Spain, specifically at FC Barcelona, has proven to be the one stain in his excellent CV.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic in AC Milan
Zlatan Ibrahimovic - showing the size of the fish he caught while playing in AC Milan
That one 2009/10 season in the Camp Nou, after the Catalonian club paid 46 million euros plus Samuel Eto'o to Inter Milan for his services, has been discussed time and time again, with a lot of factors influencing Zlatan's underperformance and not being to thrive in one of the finest teams of all time and one of the great managers of the beautiful game, Pep Guardiola.

So what went wrong for Ibrahimovic in Barcelona and why he failed there? Let's find out.

Lack of pace and pressing

Ibrahimovic has a lot of abilities and skills as a football player, including an exquisite first touch, supreme technique, great goalscoring prowess, great at headers and a lot more. He is a very complete forward, but considering his great height, he is not particularly blessed with pace and that had a big influence in the fact he wasn't a very good presser, which indirectly impacted his time at Barcelona.

Sure, Zlatan started out scoring a lot at Barcelona, but his lack of pressing and speed, plus other factors we are going to cover next, played a big role in the way that the team was now a bit slower in transition compared to how they were in the previous season where they won the treble. Manager Pep Guardiola has always relied on an intense press and it was difficult to play that way with Zlatan leading the line.

That is why the Catalonian manager decided to make adjustments, which leads us to the next point.

Lionel Messi

As great as Zlatan has been throughout his career, there is no shame in admitting that Lionel Messi has been even better. One of the all-time greats of the game, there was a lot of expectation back in 2009 about what he and Zlatan could do together in Barcelona and while things started out very well, the reality is that the two ended up clashing, but not on a personal level-rather when it comes to tactics and positioning.

Due to the aforementioned issue with Ibrahimovic's lack of pace and Messi's own desire to play in the middle to be able to score more goals, Guardiola decided to accommodate the Argentinian starlet and, truth be told, one cannot argue with the results as Lionel went on a goalscoring spree and that blueprint proved to be key in the club's Champions League next season, without the Swede in the squad.

However, Zlatan started to suffer in the process because of this and had to adapt to playing on the wings or as a second fiddle in attack to Messi, with the system playing against him. On purely football and tactical terms, it was simply a mismatch for Zlatan and that would end up costing him at the Camp Nou.

Lack of communication

The former Inter Milan man has never had issues with talking about his fractured relationship with Pep Guardiola and how their communication broke down during the middle of their season together when the Catalonian manager decided to play Messi as a false striker, thus sidelining Zlatan in the process.

The Swede has spoken about it throughout the years, especially in his autobiography, highlighting how Guardiola didn't speak to him since February of 2010 all the way to leaving for AC Milan in the summer of that year. It is a testament to how broken their relationship was that Pep would walk away from the room when Ibrahimovic was about to enter, according to the player himself.

Now, there is no denying that Pep's decision to move Messi as a striker proved to be the right one and that probably had a lot more sense when it comes to his interpretation and vision of how football should be player, but he could have gone about it in a different way with Zlatan and being more open to communication, thus avoiding all the unnecessary drama that unfolded afterwards.

Based on reports, Ibrahimovic never had an issue with Guardiola until the point and vice versa, so it is quite weird that things took such a downturn from a relationship perspective. Perhaps Pep knew this decision made Zlatan surplus to requirements at the long term, but this didn't require an absurd lack of communication.

The now former Barcelona manager has achieved a lot throughout the years and he is one of the all-time greats of the sport in the role, but he could have handled this a lot better as far as man-management goes.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the national team
Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Swedish national team shirt


While Zlatan's numbers at Barcelona were not that bad (21 goals in 45 matches would be a great return for the vast majority of strikers), the expectation was that he was going to elevate the team and provide a lot of assets that their current attacking options were not offering, but the reality proved to be quite different and neither Ibrahimovic nor Guardiola knew how to handle a very delicate situation.

The Swede's time at the Camp Nou would prove to be one of those cases where not every single great player can fit in every single squad and it can create a lot of problems in terms of how to make everybody work in a functional manner. This is something that came to be with Lionel Messi, which forced Guardiola to make a decision and he decided to go with the Argentinian.

Regardless, Zlatan would enjoy a massive resurrection at AC Milan and Barcelona would also be very successful without him, so it can be said that both parties benefitted from going their separate ways. But we are always going to have discussions about what went wrong with this union.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and FC Barcelona: a union that in theory should have given a lot more to the world of football.
Kelvin Tingling knows most things about football and also likes to write about it. Kelvin lives in Buenos Aires and his favorite team is Boca Juniors.