It was November of 2015. The title race was shaping, just as the autumn air was cooling. Leaves in North London were a tint of brown by now, with fireworks planned for that Saturday night, as the Emirates hosted the first North London derby of the season, as it always seems to. Arsenal, who had just been beaten 5-1 by Bayern Munich in the week leading up to the game, started sluggishly in the tea-time kick-off and went behind to a Harry Kane goal, because you know. Nothing changes at Arsenal.
Despite fumbling with his coat zipper and hauling off linchpin Cazorla at half-time because he was getting pressed out the game, Arsène Wenger was made to settle for a point. A lot was made at full-time of man of the match Dele Alli, Tottenham’s new teenage talent, who ran his cotton socks off. How Arsenal need a player like Dele Alli, they said: a constant thorn in the side of your opposition, a physical presence on and off the ball. And they weren’t wrong: I mean, who doesn’t need a fired up Dele Alli bursting from midfield? The opposing, languid Mesut Özil, who had completed another “invisible” ninety minutes, was compared in duller tones to the electric Englishman, by supporters and pundits a-like.
It was Mesut Özil though, who had assisted Kieran Gibbs for the Arsenal equaliser (actually one more assist than the Spurs youngster had mustered that day, despite his blistering performance). It’s a common narrative too, that Özil looks lazy, depressive, even when Arsenal aren’t in full force.
If you are expecting Özil to be super aggressive and running miles and miles side to side and to show great enthusiasm and aggression, this is not Mesut. If you are waiting for somebody who every time he touches the ball, the ball smiles and every time he makes the pass the ball goes in the right direction with the right speed and intensity… this is Mesut
“[He’s] not like Cristiano Ronaldo or any other players with their chest out,” says Andreas Bock of German football magazine, 11Freunde. “If the game isn’t good, fans will sometimes shout at him. A lot of ex-coaches have explained to me though that not only is he assisting, he is also making the second assist or the third assist. Sometimes he looks very lazy when he is actually sneaking through the defence unnoticed.”
The comparison of Özil with Ronaldo, or even Sánchez, is an interesting clash. Both Cristiano and Alexis are born winners who seemingly work harder, run further and stay later in training than any other teammate. When things go awry, both shout at their colleagues. Both are heated, vaguely arrogant in their swagger, powerful and charismatic.
Mesut Özil is quieter. He played chess growing up, and retains that eye for the move two, three steps ahead; as Bock calls it, the second assist or the third assist. He is the ice to Alexis’s South American heat. The Bergkamp to his Henry and all those other tired clichés that refer to someone who uses their head before their heart, thinks, before they speak.
Özil is not the kind of player to pick up the broken pieces of your team, but he is the glue. Özil recycles the ball more efficiently than anyone, and arguably his greatest attribute is the simplest aspect of his game: he always puts the ball in a better position than the place he received it from. Next time he’s on TV, just watch it. It’s efficiency personified. The man has strong Turkish heritage, but he’s German in his play, through and through. Özil’s job is to enhance the other ten men on the field.
But though his shoulders sometimes drop, his personal stats for completing passes, even seeing passes, never drop. A season on from that derby, when Arsenal were again tonked 5-1 in the Allianz, the same voices were heard: “Özil was invisible”. Yet the German, bereft in the game, had made more tackles than any other player and started the attack that led to Granit Xhaka having the best Arsenal opportunity after the goal. Even when Özil doesn’t assist, his pass completion rates rarely drop below 80%.
And that’s not even scratching the surface on why his performances have been slated of late.
Why does Özil seem to underperform?
Last season, Mesut Özil made a huge 16 assists in his first 18 appearances for Arsenal in the league. In the last fifteen games of the season, he made just three, with the widely accepted explanation being that he’d simply dropped in form. He still made 125 key passes last season, and created 144 chances, though: to put that into context, Cesc Fàbregas made 75 key passes and created 93 chances when Chelsea won the league the season before. Fàbregas made one less assist in his shining season than Özil did in his. The German’s campaign though overshadowed by teammates not finishing the chances he made, in the manor that Costa, Hazard et al had converted Cesc’s.
This season is a sequel. Özil has managed just four assists, but has chipped in with nine league goals, as Alexis has operated most of the season as a false nine for the Gunners. Again though, goals and assists have dried up from December onwards for the German.
The common denominator is simple: Cazorla. Last season’s assist drought was thought to be largely thanks to Giroud failing to hit the target for fifteen games – and it was – but behind Özil, the loss of Santi Cazorla has been far more important. With Cazorla operating in the pivot behind Özil, the supply to the German was superb; improved when Xhaka was signed too, and Arsenal ran riot earlier this season. Last season, Özil’s assist drought coincided with Cazorla getting injured, and it’s the same this season.
Check out the average positions of Arsenal’s midfield when Cazorla plays, as indicated in the first passmap against Hull. It’s not very balanced, but see in the second how isolated Özil was away to City with two natural defensive midfielders behind him. In the third image, Aaron Ramsey is alongside Coquelin, and Özil is less cut off.
Considering he’s one of the two best players at the club, it can be a lottery as to whether Özil is left detached from the other two midfielders. 4-2-3-1 is seen by many as a dated formation, and a pivot of Xhaka and Coquelin – the most trusted choice this season – seems to hindering both players. Francis Coquelin this season has made an average of just 38 forward passes a game, nearly half what Cazorla averaged last season. Coquelin has averaged less than a key pass a game compared to Cazorla’s 2.3. Xhaka, a far more accomplished passer than Coquelin, has found himself positionally compromised by Coquelin’s marauding runs all season – his two sendings off this season have come for fouls out of his natural position, covering teammates – and anchoring the defensive midfield position on his own would suit Xhaka better, as his lack of pace proves.
Cazorla and Coquelin, it should also be mentioned, wasn’t really a pivot a lot of the time. Coquelin sat deep, as in that Hull pass map above, Cazorla ahead to the left slightly, with Aaron Ramsey on the right wing for much of the second half of the 2014-15 season. It made more of a three-man midfield for Özil to drift in front of. Iwobi and Walcott don’t provide so much cover on the wing, and can’t connect the midfield to Özil and Alexis: that’s not their function.
Take into account also the seven games that Xhaka has missed through suspension, many of which Özil has struggled even more so to find possession in. Leaving Real Madrid was always going to be a step down, but is there another player in the world, considered world class, who has to receive service from Francis Coquelin, often rely on the movement of Olivier Giroud and play in a 4-2-3-1?
Ask Paul Pogba, a man who looked lost in the same formation with Fellaini alongside him, before Mourinho had the sense to switch to a more dynamic system.
Being a good player who gets isolated in big games isn’t good enough for a World Cup winner. The criticism is understandable; in this pivotal point in his career, Mesut Özil needs to find himself in the centre of everything if Arsenal want to challenge for titles.
Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 is built around Özil, albeit with shaky foundations. But he is arguably the last luxury number ten left in Europe given that no one else really plays the system with the regularity that Wenger does (every damn game). Marek Hamsik, Kevin de Bruyne and Toni Kroos have all adapted to deeper midfield roles, with Ángel Di María and James Rodríguez often operating wide these days. Dele Alli is a year and a bit older than he was when he first faced Mesut Özil at number ten: the last time he played against him, he lined up alongside Christian Eriksen in a 3-4-3.
For Özil to change his game, Arsenal have got to change too. Relying on Cazorla is no longer an option given his injury woes, and Xhaka clearly needs to hold the regista position on his own at the Emirates. If Arsenal are to persist with the 4-2-3-1, wingers need to come back into the midfield, and neither Alex Iwobi or Theo Walcott are the biggest fans of tracking back. Often for Real, Özil himself would play on the wing, a lot of the time from the right. In his early Emirates days Özil was left isolated on the wing at times when he was deployed there; again, service to him and movement was poor.
Özil is in a strange boat: he doesn’t score enough to deployed by Wenger on the wing like Welbeck or Walcott, and he doesn’t defend enough to be trusted deeper like Oxlade-Chamberlain or Ramsey. A luxury number ten in a side that don’t have the luxury of playing with a natural number ten at times… right?
The answer lies midway between systematic/personnel change and Özil maximising his own abilities. Contrary to the stories, Mesut is not a lazy player: after Aaron Ramsey, the German covers more pitch than any other Arsenal player. Özil is capable of playing in a midfield three, of regista, box-to-box and playmaker, providing that they all know their positions in defensive phases; Real have Casemiro, Modric and Kroos, Bayern have Alonso, Vidal and Thiago, and Arsenal could use Xhaka, Ramsey and Özil in the same way. See the thread below:
Seeing KDB and Thiago in the past week made me realise Özil has to transition into a CM just like KDB
He's passive but he should change that
— Abdul (@Flaminiesta) February 21, 2017
For Özil to read the game deeper too, may also get the best from Ramsey. In attacking phases, he can drift in the same trequartista style that he usually does; it’s a transformation that Kroos has made in recent years.
If he were to play on the wing, it would be all about how defensive and attacking phases are organised again. Without the ball, Özil should shadow mark opposing full-backs and help out Héctor Bellerín, but with the ball – and a fuller midfield supporting behind – Özil should have freer reign to create, and hopefully better service from the midfield than he did when Flamini and Arteta were relied on to cover the defence.
Wenger may feel he’s helping his star player by playing him exactly where he wants, but the lack of organisation can stifle the playmaker at times.
Özil actually chipped in with goals at Bremen early in his career and scored a fair few when deployed as false nine for Germany, in much the same way that he did for Arsenal earlier this season. Though the assists seemed to dry up this term, he made one on Boxing Day when he combined with Olivier Giroud for Arsenal’s winner: the striker that has converted more Özil set ups than any other since he moved from Madrid.
Football moves in cycles, just like form, just like the ball around a deep block when Mesut Özil is dictating play. But the constant is the man himself: it’s what changes around him that dictates the kind of game he has. It’s time to stop talking of Özil’s inconsistencies, his lack of effort and his laziness, and instead focus on what makes him tick. And what makes his sides tick, is Özil. He is not the superstar to blaze through 40 yards of defenders to finish a chance. He’s the one who makes that guy look good.
Watch the game, and you think Özil is invisible. Watch Özil, and you’ll see the game.