Think back to the second half of the 2015 MLS season. The Montreal Impact had been decent enough, but weren't exactly cruising along. They needed a focal point – someone to sharpen up the attack, to provide a logical endpoint to some of the more attractive build-ups that group was able to conjure.
And so they signed the aging but still phenomenally skilled Didier Drogba. The Cote d'Ivoire legend, then 37 years old, walked right into the starting lineup and scored 11 goals in 11 games (9 starts), then grabbed another in the playoffs as he battered Toronto FC, then battled Columbus (including #DrogbaLegLock, one of the truly great moments for MLS Twitter).
Drogba couldn't run much anymore, and probably played 90 more often than he should've at that point. But he was still 1) phenomenally smart, 2) a spectacular finisher, 3) among the best in the world at holding the ball up, which allowed his teammates a safety valve in possession, and 4) a defense-splitting passer of the ball.
Want to know what the LA Galaxy are getting in 36-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic? All of that, plus taekwondo:
There are two kinds of true center forwards. First is the "off the back shoulder" or "through the lines" type, one who's constantly trying to find gaps behind the defense in order to get on the end of quality service. These center forwards are the type who use the space that others create for them; it's their movement off the ball that defends their game, rather than what they do when they're on it.
Which means, naturally, that these are low-usage players. The game doesn't move through them, but around them. Ola Kamara is this type of player.
The other type of center forward is the target forward. They will occasionally play though the lines off the ball, but are much likelier to check back into midfield – bringing the defense with them – and combine with the guys around them. Play tends to run through them to a high degree for the simple reason that they are secure with the ball. If you're not secure with the ball, you literally can not be a target forward.
That ball security allows two things. First is that they obviously end up completing a lot of passes, changing the fulcrum of the typical build-up from midfield to the front line. Second is that they end up having a lot of gravity, meaning they pull the defense toward them.
If you're a CB going against a through-the-lines striker, your first focus is on space. If you're a CB going against a target forward, your first focus has to be on said forward. You have to ride them as they check to receive the ball and then do your damnedest to force them into safe passes because if you don't, a good target forward will turn and suddenly become an ad hoc playmaker.
Here is some expert target forward play:
You can see the advantage of building through the target forward there, as Kei Kamara's check back to receive the ball acted as sort of a soccer version of aikido. Because the defense stepped with him, they both left space behind him and their momentum made it so they were never going to be able to close said space.
Ibrahimovic is, for my money, the best pure target forward the world has seen over the past two decades (he actually led the Champions League in assists back in 2012/13). He checks every box.
Now there are three questions that Sigi Schmid has to answer:
1. How many minutes can he realistically play?
Obviously TBD given his age and recent run of injuries, but I'd be wary of going over 60 minutes until the pressure's on later in the season, and I'd think twice about making him run on turf, and I'd definitely never start him midweek.
Minute management is going to be key, and that mean ego management is going to be key. Zlatan didn't become Zlatan by riding the bench, even if it's for his own (and the team's) good.
2. Can Zlatan and Ola play together?
Twenty years ago the answer would've been "yes" with no hesitation. Two-striker systems were the norm, with one almost always a through-the-lines option and the other a target forward. Truth is I'm sure they can make it work in attack.
The problem will be in possession and defense. The reason two-striker systems went out of vogue and are fairly rare now amongst the world's top teams is because you deprive yourself of at least one man in the midfield by going with two up top, and possession really does matter:
I'm very bored of people taking possession stats from one game and saying 'possession means nothing'. Here's the link from 2016/17. pic.twitter.com/zv2YAZzRH3— Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) May 29, 2017
Is it worth conceding the midfield in order to get these two strikers onto the same field? At the top levels, the answer has usually been "no." MLS isn't the top level and possession hasn't mattered as much here as it has in the leagues where Zlatan has starred, but it's something Schmid will have to figure out.
One possible escape valve could be the 3-5-2. LA have the central midfielders to make a go of it, and a handful of guys who could conceivably do the job at wingback. Plus Schmid won the MLS Cup/Supporters' Shield double with the Galaxy back in 2002 with a team that played the 3-5-2, so it's not like he's unfamiliar with the formation or how it works.
That leads us to...
3. What happens to Gio Dos Santos?
He's clearly best as a second striker, as he doesn't defend well enough to play on the wing and isn't high-usage enough to be a midfielder. If you tried to play him as a No. 10 in a 3-5-2, you'd probably get overrun. You could play him as a second striker alongside either Zlatan or Ola in a 3-5-2 (which would really be a 3-5-1-1) or a 4-4-2 (which would really be a 4-4-1-1), but as we've seen this year, that's far from a guarantee of success.
The truth is I don't know how he fits in LA anymore. He's struggled for most of the past two years now, and the Galaxy seem like they're done trying to build around him. He's going to have to make himself fit and not the other way around.
That, in turn, may be exactly what he needs. Nobody's guaranteed time in in MLS in 2018 – not your highest-priced DP, nor your highest-profile superstar target forward.