This week’s column has been inspired by two superb articles written by Dave Seager, featured on Football London: the former was an inspired analysis of how Cesc Fàbregas was a more influential figure at the Arsenal than Mesut Özil – although younger and playing with less-convincing teammates – while the second is a straight comparison between the German and Santi Cazorla’s stellar debut season in North London, when he used to play behind the striker.
If you haven’t read them already, do it – you won’t regret it.
Both articles prompted me to think deeply about Mesut Özil contribution and role within the team, I will try to explain why the German is such a different player compared to any other attacking midfielder or second striker in Europe.
Mesut Özil was signed as the “Best Number 10 in Europe” and this is where the problems started, really.
He’s many things and possesses some characteristics of the traditional No. 10 but he’s both more and less than that: No. 10’s are usually game changers, players who can create something out of nothing, a totally unexpected moment of magic during a game – something that Mesut Özil is not.
He can split a defensive line with a single pass, like a proper No. 10, but requires movement around him and clever, well-timed runs or he’d prefer to start another move and wait for the good opportunity.
You won’t see him beating two defenders and invent an amazing solo run to win us a match, unlike most of the No. 10s, and you won’t see him grabbing a game “by the scruff of the neck”.
Mesut Özil is a No. 10 but also a central midfielder, a winger and a striker – depending on the situation and his anticipation – something that traditional No. 10’s are not; unlike many of his colleagues, Mesut Özil has the extraordinary quality of always being where he needs to be, which often isn’t where one would expect him to be, on the pitch.
This relentless movement, this never-ending quest for space is what makes Mesut Özil so special and so unique; when he was at Real Madrid, he had the ideal platform behind him to roam around and play his game, while forwards like Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema and Higuaín were the ideal targets for his through-balls and pinpointed crosses; his unreal numbers in terms of assists were boosted by Real Madrid strikers’ efficiency in front of goals but he proved last season that he can be the difference within the Arsenal team, despite having less-clinical strikers to supply.
He recorded 19 assists last season, he’s been the first player to provide one assist in seven consecutive games and also the first to create ten chances in one single game – a game that ended 0-0, ironically enough.
Dave is right when he says that he only provided three assist between Christmas and the end of the season, however the team’s slump in sharpness and movement had a lot to do with that because Mesut Özil performances depend heavily on his teammates’. Perhaps too much, one might say.
He kept moving the ball around in search of the perfect opening but was uninspired and low in confidence, while connections within the team weren’t as good as earlier in the season and our overall form took a big dip into mediocrity – resulting in him being less effective and the team being less successful.
This is where traditional No. 10’s usually emerge and find a way to win a game against the play, something Mesut Özil should work on; he doesn’t shy away from responsibilities but wasn’t educated like a striker – a path followed by many No. 10s – and doesn’t have the revolve to force things to go his way.
During his best season at the Arsenal, he provided eight assists through crosses from either wing and delivered five laser-guided passes from dead-ball situation – very often from a wide position, too.
Thirteen out of his nineteen assists came from the wings, while only four were through balls from the typical No. 10 area and the remaining two were rather fortuitous – another sign that he’s not the old-school No. 10 we were presented with.
His movement off the ball is simply majestic – something that TVs often do not show – and puts him really far from the common No. 10’s, who rarely drift away from the hole between the striker(s); again, Mesut Özil is both more and less than a No. 10.
Traditional No. 10’s are either very visible ore completely invisible on the pitch, they are the centre of everything good and bad with a football team – think of Matt Le Tissier or Paul Gascoigne, for instance – while Mesut Özil’s impact on a game can easily go unnoticed or underestimated; the former Werder Bremen midfielder is the oil in the engine, the ingredient that harmonizes the whole recipe, the ultimate team player – not the game-changer we were told we signed from Real Madrid.
One might even call him a luxury player, after all: he needs the correct set-up in order to shine and should be allowed the maximum freedom on the pitch to have a real impact. He used to have some outstanding distributors and ball-recyclers behind him such as Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, Luka Modric or Toni Kroos – while at the Arsenal he can only count on Santi Cazorla to build from deep and find him through the lines, where he can really do some damages; with Granit Xhaka struggling to impose himself in midfield (he’ll do, eventually. Keep the faith!) and players like Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny simply unable to play the deep-lying playmaker role, the German is short of supplies and options.
For your own good, you should accept the fact that Mesut Özil is not the warlord who will guide the Arsenal troops in the most heated games, he’s not the shipmaster who leads his crew to another boarding and he’s not the player to turn to when you’re in need of a little miracle.
I hate to admit it but José Mourinho was spot on (have I just said this???) when he said that “Mesut Özil instantly completes your puzzle” but if your puzzle isn’t good, Mesut Özil won’t make it work for you.
Arsène Wenger’s responsibility should be building a well-balanced, well-working midfield dam to provide the team with stability and balance, then Mesut Özil will make the difference between the lines.
Without the correct set-up, Mesut Özil has proved to be detrimental for the team – it’s therefore time to decide if the German is worth building the team around or if we should move on and possibly change our style of play to a more dynamic 4-3-3 with box-to-box midfielders alongside a deep-lying playmaker.
Make up your mind, Arsenal.