David Winner, the noted journalist and author, interviewed Wayne Rooney for ESPN in 2012. Beforehand he ran into Alan Shearer, who had just come from speaking to the Manchester United striker himself. Winner planned on asking Rooney about his thought process on the field, and how he made snap decisions in milliseconds with defenders closing in around him.
Shearer looked bemused. Rooney, after all, is known as a player with raw football instincts and not much else. "I think he probably won't be able to tell you how he got his talent and his ability. He was born with it," came the reply from the Newcastle legend.
Rooney's answers would tell a different story. He spoke of training to visualise different scenarios and of teaching his brain to calculate the right thing to do. "There're so many things that go through your mind in a split second," he said when asked about his iconic overhead kick against Manchester City.
"You're asking yourself six questions in a split second. Maybe you've got time to bring it down on the chest and shoot, or you have to head it first-time. If the defender is there, you've obviously got to try and hit it first-time. If he's farther back, you've got space to take a touch. You get the decision made. Then it's obviously about the execution."
Zlatan's own masterpiece follows a similar pattern; a series of thoughts calculated in a second before the right decision was made. "When I got the long ball, I saw the goalkeeper come out, and I thought, 'Should I go in for the duel, or wait for him to put it out?'," the Sweden captain said. "When he put it out, I had it in my mind to score - to try to score. I tried to put it in the goal."
To cut a long story short rarely is a snap decision ever just instinctive, especially amongst elite athletes. There's so much more to it than that.
The genius of a footballer, or any athlete, is in their ability to analyse, compute and execute decision-making skills under pressure. Being a largely working class game, footballers are often fobbed off as playing on instinct with little understanding of what they're doing. Or, as Shearer says. they're just 'born with it'.
Unsurprisingly, US evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould disagrees with that assessment. "I don't deny the differences in style and substance between athletic and conventional scholarly performance," he wrote. "But we surely err in regarding sports as a domain of brutish intuition… The greatest athletes cannot succeed by bodily gifts alone." Sports Cognition Coach Dan Peterson goes as far as to suggest that footballers' ability to process information put their 'level of expertise' on par with a doctor.
That, of course, strikes at the very heart of a conflict within football, and its perception amongst the public as a working class game. Elite players aren't able to work out problems in a linear way, as, say, a physicist or biologist would; their thought process is subconscious and happens in milliseconds. But that ability alone sets them aside as different.
"As early as age 9, elite soccer players demonstrated superior perceptual and cognitive skills when compared to their sub-elite counterparts"
Most of us are able to compute and make decisions on a daily basis, but from an early age, those with innate ability are set apart. "As early as age 9, elite soccer players demonstrated superior perceptual and cognitive skills when compared to their sub-elite counterparts," wrote Paul Ward and A. Mark Williams of Liverpool John Moores University in their 2003 study: Perceptual and Cognitive Skill Development in Soccer: The Multidimensional Nature of Expert Performance.
The same study also pointed out that it wasn't just the ability to choose the correct option, be it a shot or a pass, that made elite youngsters stand out, but also their ability to quickly analyse and disregard unimportant information, such as a team-mate in a less threatening position.
"Research in general supports what is known as a speed-accuracy trade-off," adds Dr. Rhonda Cohen, Head of the London Sport Institute at Middlesex University. "That is the faster you go, the less accurate you become. However, my research demonstrated that in a sport where there is a greater risk, players are quick in their reactions yet they maintain accuracy. I feel, therefore, that some people are more genetically disposed to being able to make quick and accurate decisions."
But it's what comes next that makes the difference, and that's because there really isn't much difference between the very best from a technical point of view. "The technical, tactical and physical difference between elite players is often minimal; the thing that separates the best from the rest is that the best players consistently make better decisions while under pressure," Kevin McGreskin, Technical Director of SoccerEye Q, is quoted as saying.
That largely comes down to training. Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers famously claimed that anyone can become an expert in any given field with 10,000 hours of practice, and the very best train endlessly, supported by a growing army of psychologists and sports scientists as football's data revolution continues. In his 2012 interview, Rooney revealed he spoke to Manchester United's kit man to find out what colours they'd be wearing for the game so he could practice his visualisation as accurately as possible. Ibrahimovic himself talked of practising his technique in training regularly too, meaning he's prepared if the ball comes his way. "I scored the same bicycle kick goal in training," he said in an interview with the Guardian. "It was raining and I did the backflip again and scored in one of those very small training goals. Nobody could believe it.
Athletes often talk of having what feels like minutes when in reality they have seconds to react. Or, as David Endt, the former Ajax manager once said; "the seconds of the greats last longer than those of normal people". This isn't imagined either. "When we talk about being in the zone then there is a sense of time slowing down which is a real sensation," explains Dr. Cohen. "There is a mix of challenge and skill which is just perfect and you find yourself in the flow of the game."
That sense of time is of course borne out of a natural, god-given ability - but isn't handed out for free. It has to be earned.