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How Zlatan Ibrahimovic asked a million questions to come up with the right answer against England

There were 74 minutes on the match clock at the Friends Arena when Steven Gerrard's number was called.

He strolled from the pitch, applauding the travelling England fans who had made the journey to Solna, just north of Stockholm and greeted his replacement, Tom Huddlestone. He took his place on the bench amidst a sea of congratulations.

As a celebration of his 100th international cap, the night was working out well. Roy Hodgson's team were 2-1 up against Sweden when he left the pitch thanks to goals from Steven Caulker and Danny Welbeck.

Hodgson took the moment to be as good as any to withdraw Gerrard from the action, to give him the standing ovation his achievement deserved.

Of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic would spoil the occasion with a goal so breathtaking that even Gerrard didn't mind that his milestone was knocked down the news agenda. "It is the best goal I have seen live," he said after the game.

"I congratulated him after that. He said some nice things about me before the game, which was really nice, and if I could return the compliment - that was one of the best individual performances I have seen."

Ibrahimovic had already scored once, bagging Sweden's opener before England took charge. He wouldn't be denied the limelight on an evening designed to raise the curtain on Sweden's sparkling new 50,000-capacity stadium.

The Paris Saint-Germain striker levelled things up four minutes after Gerrard left the field, and would have his hat-trick in the bag by the 84th minute. Then it happened.

England's defending could have been better. Joe Hart's clearance could have gone further. But it's hard to imagine how Ibrahimovic's goal could have been any better. His moment of instant improvisation was beamed around the world; a leaping propeller kick from 30 yards, a 6'4" frame contorted to leave Hart stranded, watching on with the best seat in the house as the ball dropped into the net. "I wanted to scream 'No!'," said Ibrahimovic when he saw Ryan Shawcross' desperate dive to stop the ball. Fortunately for him, the Stoke defender wasn't able to butcher its beauty.

The flash of inspiration would earn Ibrahimovic the FIFA Puskás Award for the goal of the year ahead of Neymar and Nemanja Matic, and form the basis of the striker's now iconic 'Dare to Zlatan' Nike campaign.

One moment of skill, a flash of inspiration that's still talked about now. And it was all done without a thought, right?

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.

There was a revolution in Holland in the 1970's that changed the way that football was thought of. Total Football looked to transform formations from rigid structures to fluid ideas, and to make the pitch a canvas on which every player could express themselves.

Both Ajax and the Dutch national team adopted the philosophy that came from the minds of Rinus Michels and then Johan Cruyff, allowing defenders to become strikers and full-backs to become wingers. Both are considered amongst the greatest thinkers in the game's history. Their teams are too.

The core principle underpinning Total Football was the ability to assess where to be on the pitch in relation to a teammate; essentially the perfect execution of decision making. The assessment process is constant and always changing.

"Every trainer talks about movement, about running a lot. I say don't run so much, football is a game you play with your brains," said Cruyff of his approach to the game, and the echoes of his philosophy can still be felt today - and not just at the Nou Camp, where his blueprint was used to take Pep Guardiola's Barcelona to new levels of brilliance.

Football hasn't evolved from using brawn to brains, it's always been the way. It's just that now, the very best know they need to train their mind as well as their body in order to succeed.

With Ibrahimovic, as with any elite player, having the cognitive function to execute what us mere mortals could only dream of sets him aside, and it's an ability that has taken years to hone but was demonstrated in seconds.

Indeed, the ball was already on its way to the back of the net before it had even touched Ibrahimovic's foot.

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