Crucial Pioli picks right games for influential Milan ace to be in starting XI

While Zlatan Ibrahimovic has had a positive influence since January, Milan boss Stefano Pioli arguably still has to be sensible when deciding which games he starts in.

Having bagged six goals and three assists in 14 games since he rejoined us, the 38-year-old has proven that he can still produce at this level and offers us a fundamental option up front.

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With his height, physicality, ability to link up play and bring others into the game as well as his creativity and eye for goal, it all gels into an ideal frontman to lead the line for us, although there have been signs of rustiness and a lack of fitness since the restart given he was sidelined by a calf injury during the lockdown.

The Swede grabbed a goal and an assist against both Lazio and Juventus respectively, showing he can deliver against the top sides in the league too, and so it’s easy to see why Pioli went with him in his starting line-up against Napoli as he was so effective and influential away at Lazio last week.

However, aside from the fact that we’re playing every three days and he needs to rotate to give Ibrahimovic time to rest and recover too, there is perhaps an argument that Pioli also needs to assess who offers the bigger threat in certain games.

Rebic up top an ideal alternative

Milan arguably played into Napoli’s hands on Sunday by starting Ibrahimovic, as Kalidou Koulibaly and Nikola Maksimovic were able to match up well against his physical presence and lack of pace to track him and limit his influence on the game.

While the veteran showed glimpses and is capable of producing a moment of real quality to change any game, there was a case for Rebic getting the nod instead as his pace, movement and ability to get in behind presented different problems for Napoli’s defensive pairing that they certainly looked less comfortable dealing with.

We can even look back to one of our previous recent meetings with the Partenopei with Krzysztof Piatek memorably scoring twice in his first start in a Coppa Italia encounter last season, and on both occasions he used his pace and movement to get in behind none other than Koulibaly and Maksimovic to score.

Further, the Croatian’s relentless work-rate also helps us press and apply pressure higher up the pitch, and it was incredibly effective while Ibrahimovic was still sidelined by his injury, as seen in the wins over Lecce and Roma.

Napoli’s class saw them emerge as the better side in the first half and they picked us off in midfield, and with no first line of press in their half, we perhaps made life a little easier for them to play their natural game and dictate the tempo.

Next run of games ideal for Ibra

That said, as we now prepare to host Parma and Bologna at San Siro, those are games in which it makes sense to start Ibrahimovic up top as we’ll fancy our chances of dominating possession, and so his ability to offer a target in the box and to bring others into the game will hopefully help us break them down.

Further, it would come as no surprise if both sides drop deep and offer no space in behind while playing on the counter attack, and so Rebic’s movement and pace off the ball in a support role to Ibrahimovic could be crucial in finding a breakthrough.

Much depends on the scenario and the set-up of the opposition. However, what Rebic offers on and off the ball when leading the attack is something that Ibrahimovic can’t replicate, and that high-tempo and high-energy approach is arguably more pleasing on the eye and effective in putting pressure on teams while it’s a strategy that is paying dividends for sides all across Europe.

Ibra’s going to be influential in the last six games, but there are arguably certain match-ups where our chances of winning increase by opting to go with younger and fresher legs up top with an in-form, confident and prolific Rebic leading the way.