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Pellè vs. Ibrahimovic: Does the team make the difference?

Italy and Sweden’s star strikers meet each other in Euro 2016 Group Match

Illustration: Lars Ickenroth. Data Source: Gracenote.

Graziano Pellè grasped the attention of the football world, by scoring Italy’s second goal in their 2–0 victory over Belgium, in their Euro 2016 Group E Match last monday. Earlier that day, Sweden’s superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic didn’t seem to succeed in making a lasting impression on the pitch, in the match against the Republic of Ireland. However, the performance data of the two strikers don’t seem to differ that much. Is it the squad than, that causes a player like Pellè to stand out?

When we look at the data, there is hardly a significant difference to discover between the two strikers, beside the fact that the Italian forward scored where his Swedish counterpart failed to do so. Pellè shot or headed 5 times at goal, while Ibrahimovic came to 4 shots. Pellè however, imposed more imminent danger for the Swedes, by creating two direct scoring opportunities for himself. Ibrahimovic shots on the other hand predominantly went wide. But do the data prove that Ibrahimovic’ performance against Ireland was poorer than Pellè’s?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Not only are the styles of the two players different, they also have a different role in their squad. Yes, they are both strikers, but where Pellè is a real target man — who plays in and around the penalty area — Ibrahimovic is a player who strolls along the pitch. He even sometimes picks up the ball at the midfield and helps his team in setting up the attacking lay-outs. The data show that Ibrahimovic was more involved in passing than Pellè in his first Euro 2016 game: The former PSG star gave 44 passes, while the Italian striker of Southampton passes ‘just’ 35 times. 18 of Ibrahimovic’ passes were incomplete, over 13 incomplete passes for Pellè.

However, Ibrahimovic was far less involved in man-to-man challenges as Pellè was. The Swede won 5 duels and lost 6, while his Azzuri colleague also won 5 duels, but at the same time lost a total of 17. In this case it’s also a matter of what role the two players play in their squad. Because his territory is pedominantly in and around the box of the opponent, Pellè has to challenge his defender way more than Ibrahimovic does, who prefers to wander around the pitch. And it speaks in favor of Pellè that, despite of all the duels he lost, he managed to score.

Also the team tactics play a big part in the performance of both strikers. Sweden relies heavily on the creative talent of Ibrahimovic, who has a totally free role in his squad, where Italy is a more balanced team that uses a tight organisation and a balanced attacking plan to beat the opponent. With agile, skilled and fit players like Candreva, Giaccherini, Parolo, Darmian and De Rossi around him, Pellè has far more support, either as passing options or as suppliers who provide him with crosses into the box. The goal that Pellè scored for example, was a result of a cross by Candreva from the right edge of the penalty area.

In this afternoon head-to-head meeting between Ibrahimovic and Pellè (Sweden vs. Italy, 15:00 CEST), we will see who is the more dominant force on the pitch. Either Zlatan will prove his individual quality and lead Sweden on the way to victory or Italy’s team strength will enable Pellè to stand out again.