Roughly 70 minutes had elapsed in the Milan Derby and his team were hanging on to a 2-1 lead when Milan coach Stefano Pioli strode to the edge of the technical area and asked his center-forward how much longer he felt he could stay out on the pitch.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had delivered both Milan goals during a three-minute period in the first half, raised his gaze towards the sideline, unfurled his fist and mouthed, “five minutes.”
Pioli sent reserve striker Lorenzo Colombo to warm up. The 18-year-old was not born when Ibrahimovic scored his first international goal for Sweden, back in 2001. If you listened closely, you could hear the sound of Rossoneri fingers being crossed.
Twenty-six minutes later, the final whistle went. Needless to say, Colombo never came on. Ibrahimovic had coaxed a full 98 minutes — counting injury time — out of his 39-year-old body; a body which, lest we forget, overcame COVID-19 just over a week ago.
On this day, it made all the difference, sealing Milan’s win and sending them to the top of the Serie A table with four wins out of four.
“He was completely exhausted,” Pioli said afterward. “He asked me to come off, but I just ignored him…”
Time is undefeated. We’ve said it on many occasions. You can not and will not outrun it. But if you’re smart — and at this stage of his career, Ibrahimovic is nothing if not whip-smart — sometimes you can confuse Father Time and magic up more moments like this.
It is not only about his two goals. The first saw him win a penalty by advancing on Aleksandar Kolarov and drawing the foul with his powerful, staccato dribble. After Samir Handanovic saved the first effort, Ibrahimovic collected the rebound and slotted home. The second saw him peel away from his marker at the far post, generating space through timing and experience, then convert Rafael Leao‘s cross.
You want to discount those because, hey, it’s Kolarov? A fine player, sure, but one who is nearly 35 and probably not a central defender, even in a back three? Sure, go for it. But if you watched the game, you’ll also know that Ibrahimovic targeted Kolarov throughout, choosing to take him on physically, rather than Stefan de Vrij who, in terms of muscle and mass, is a much closer match.
That is the difference between the wily old Alpha wolf and the young Alpha wolf. The latter would choose to pick on the healthiest, strongest male to show the pack who is in charge, but the former exploits weakness, knowing that the goal is not to prove a point, it’s to win the battle. And a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Ibrahimovic’s match wasn’t about the things he can no longer do. It was about maximising the things he could do. He was the perpetual outlet when Milan could not play out from the back, heading it on or taking it on to his chest and then distributing with precision and purpose. At one point, he dipped in his old Tae Kwon Do Black Belt playbook, harpooning a ball out of the air at head level, twisting his body like an action figure.
If you put the right pieces around him, his powers only multiply. He was never quite a sprinter — though once the long limbs get moving, he covers a lot of ground surprisingly quickly — but that matters little with speed merchants like Theo Hernandez, Alexis Saelemakers and Rafael Leao around him. They are the delivery drivers, he’s the distribution center.
Late in the game, with the tank on empty and the limbs heavy, Ibrahimovic was still doing little things to help his team. Unable to press, he found a way to extend his cartoonishly big, long telescopic leg to intercept a ball and disrupt Inter’s build-up. Moments later he trotted to the right touchline to support teammates and turned a nailed-on turnover into a no-look pass down the wing, which ate up precious seconds.
Those are the physical things we can see and record. The metaphysical impact — the confidence he gives younger teammates, the intimidation of opponents, the human lightning-rod factor — is harder to measure.
Last month, after scoring two goals on opening day against Bologna, he said: “I scored [only] two because I am [nearly] 40… if I was 20, I would have scored four.”
Yeah, but only if he was 20 with the mind he has now. Because when he was that age, he wasn’t scoring four goals in a game. In fact, the year he turned 20 he scored six time in 24 appearances for Ajax which, given what we have come to expect from him, was distinctly un-Zlatan like.
There will come a point when Milan will need to wean themselves off, a point where his presence will stunt the growth of this young team. We’re not there yet, though. Right now, Milan need this version of Ibrahimovic: wise Ibrahimovic, team-first Ibrahimovic , wounded and blood-drenched, but still hungry, Ibrahimovic . Much like the self-portrait he posted on his Twitter account, shortly after the final whistle.