Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s arrival creates a tactical puzzle for the LA Galaxy

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - March 11: Giovani dos Santos
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - March 11: Giovani dos Santos /

As well as the Galaxy did to sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a manageable contract, fitting the superstar into the lineup is a whole different issue.

At around this time last season, the Chicago Fire introduced Bastian Schweinsteiger as a Designated Player, paying a hefty $4.5 million for his services. The move, as is true with many MLS signings of older European stars, was twofold in impact: On one hand, Schweinsteiger was old, fragile and unlikely to contribute for a long time, especially given the Fire’s logjam in central midfield. They would have to assemble a complicated puzzle in order to successfully integrate him into the lineup.

On the other hand, he has won the World Cup and had been one of the best passing midfielders in the world for a decade. His pedigree was undeniable, and there was no doubt that he could star immediately in MLS. Chicago made it work, as Schweinsteiger helped them to a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference, but it was far from perfect, and investing that kind of money in a 33-year-old is almost never a foolproof plan.

The LA Galaxy’s signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, announced on Thursday, carries many of the same conundrums. Just a couple months ago, the Galaxy traded for Ola Kamara, and the Swede’s arrival creates obvious congestion at the forward position. It will take some tactical finagling from Sigi Schmid to fit the pieces together. Given that constructing dubious lineup puzzles was a fatal flaw of last year’s administration, it’s a bit worrying that Schmid and co. would relent so easily and so quickly to generating another.

But how do they turn down Zlatan? He’s Zlatan, an iconic worldwide personality and superstar. Everyone knows Ibra. And while the ACL injury he suffered with Manchester United is a concern, he’s no second coming of Steven Gerrard; at 36, he has aged relatively well, and projects to be a capable MLS player.

The bargain bin money they spent for him (by Aging Euro Star standards) should comfort skeptical Galaxy fans. Just $1.5 million of Targeted Allocation Money was needed to secure Ibra’s services, a remarkable feat by the same front office that spent $600,000 on Jermaine Jones last year. Getting Ibrahimovic on a non-DP contract is some very crafty maneuvering.

That does nothing to change Schmid’s managerial predicament, in which he will be forced to choose one of two options: He could force a player (likely Kamara) to play vastly out of position to accommodate Zlatan, which would jeopardize attacking rhythm and effectiveness, or he could sit one of his stars, probably one of Kamara, Zlatan (lol) or Giovani dos Santos. Schmid faces a kind of Sophie’s Choice, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be an upgrade for the Galaxy in the end.

Should he choose option one, he would likely have to nudge Kamara to the wing so Zlatan can slot in at his favored number 9 position. That would create an interesting dynamic with dos Santos remaining under the striker as a pseudo 10. Kamara is a scorer through-and-through, so he would function less as a get-to-the-touchline winger and more as an inverted channel-runner. Adding another scorer from that wing, opposite a cut-and-shoot guy like Romain Alessandrini, could push the Mexican into more of a distributive role, as something closer to a true number 10.

A move like that could free space for dos Santos underneath the strikers and give him lanes to put the ball through, perhaps persuading him to be more aggressive getting on the ball. Part of the reason for his disappointing form has been his inability to get touches — he only completed 18 passes in his 118 minutes this season, which significantly hinders his ability to create. At the very least, stunting Kamara to the wing would give dos Santos a needed change of pace.

The potentially disastrous defensive ramifications could be too damaging to even try this look, though. Kamara is a striker and has been for the entirety of his MLS career, so expecting him to sufficiently cover for the famously lackadaisical dos Santos would be unreasonable. An Alessandrini-dos Santos-Kamara-Zlatan front four would hemorrhage goals. The same can be said of a three-at-the-back formation that features Kamara and Zlatan in front of dos Santos.

Any lineup that combines those four wouldn’t be able to defend at all and it would be an uneven attacking fit anyway, so the second option, sitting one of the stars, has to be considered. The most obvious place to bench someone would be up top, where Ibra and Kamara contradict each other. Schmid could simply keep the same lineup they’ve used so far this season, only with Zlatan starting instead of Kamara. That would be doing a disservice to Ola, who is one of MLS’s best at poaching goal scoring opportunities, but that is the consequence of splurging on a player like Zlatan without planning for it beforehand.

They also could use the Swede as a Didier Drogba-style super-sub, keeping Kamara on the field and mitigating the effects of Ibra’s advancing age. Drogba briefly thrived in that role for Montreal a few years ago, almost helping them to MLS Cup, but it didn’t take long for him to throw a fit and essentially release himself from the team. I certainly would not want to be the one informing Zlatan that he won’t be starting.

If anyone from that front four were to sit, it’s going to have to be dos Santos. He’s been ice cold and ineffective for months, and while a rediscovering of his 2016 form would put the Galaxy over the top, LA would be better without him on the field right now, especially with Zlatan complicating things. That simple decision would not immediately solve LA’s problems, but it puts them on the right track.

Replacing Gio with a Zlatan-Kamara striking partnership would be a sight. Their styles contrast well with each other, with Ibra dropping deep and physically dominating defenders and Kamara poking around the opposing backline. Schmid would be remiss if he were to neglect the opportunity to pair the two. The problem is how difficult it could be to get Alessandrini — still arguably LA’s best player — on the field with them.

They could play a straight 4-4-2, with the Frenchman on one wing and Emmanuel Boateng or Sebastian Lletget on the other. That would be much more serviceable defensively, and the presence of Perry Kitchen as a number 6 affords them the ability to play a thinner midfield. If they decide they still want three players deep in midfield, a 3-5-2 with the talented connecter Lletget behind Ibra and Kamara could make sense, although that would require Alessandrini to play wing-back, far from an ideal situation.

Right now, there’s no right answer for Schmid. He’ll have to think and tinker a bit as the group integrates, and eventually find a combination that works. He has an amazingly talented (and deep) attacking core, one that could be among MLS’s best if and when it comes together.

Veljko Paunovic did it in Chicago last year with Schweinsteiger. We’ll see if Schmid can solve the puzzle in LA.