Arsenal’s loss to West Ham was hardly the ideal way to start the season, but to go in on Mesut Özil shows a startling lack of knowledge…
Against West Ham on Sunday, as they slumped to a shock 2-0 home defeat, Arsenal were surprisingly flat in attack, in addition to giving up two sloppy goals to the visitors. Even before going a goal down in the first half, the home side had few clear-cut chances and struggled to break down the well-organised away defence, and eventually resorted to crosses from the full-backs which were never likely to succeed.
As is often the case when Arsenal succumb to a disappointing loss, some fans have searched for a scapegoat, with the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla coming in for criticism in some areas. Another player perceived to have underperformed was Mesut Özil, Arsenal’s record signing, with neutral fans also underwhelmed by the German’s performance.
The criticism for him was starker in contrast to the praise for 16-year-old debutant Reece Oxford, shielding the West Ham defence and facing up against Özil who lined up in the same pocket of space. Many viewers were so impressed with the performance of the precocious Oxford, and so unimpressed with Özil’s, that the general consensus was that the youngster had the German in his pocket all game.
That’s the first misconception that I’d like to address. Without even watching his performance, we can compare the playmaker’s individual statistics with a performance of last season that was widely praised, at home against Liverpool. In Arsenal’s 4-1 victory, he took 0 shots from open play, made 2 key passes, completed 89.3% of his 56 passes, was dispossessed twice and had 76 touches of the ball. On Sunday, he took 1 shot from open play, made 4 key passes, completed 87.7% of his 73 passes, was dispossessed three times and had 91 touches of the ball. He was more involved than against Liverpool and similarly influential, the main difference being that his free-kick attempt hit the wall this time, rather than flying in. He completed three dribbles against Liverpool compared to none against West Ham, but as he started out centrally up against a narrow midfield four, it’s unsurprising that he didn’t have much space to try.
Watching his performance back, he certainly did more than anyone else to make something happen for Arsenal. Besides his smart passing in build-up play as he tried to get Arsenal’s attack going, he completed six passes into the West Ham area, none of which were converted. Arsenal went close to scoring three times from Özil’s balls into the box, once through Giroud’s shot in the side netting and the other two saw shots from Alexis Sanchez in good positions saved by Adrian. On the other occasions, loose touches from Giroud, Walcott and Alexis wasted the opportunities created. If those openings had been used better – which Özil has little control over – he’d be receiving praise for his clever, penetrative passes.
Özil can be an easy target for fans when things go wrong, partly because they expect a lot from him due to his price-tag, which is understandable, and also because he’s the team’s main creator, meaning that people look to him to make things happen when Arsenal aren’t attacking well. As well as that, his style is quite languid and sometimes seems timid – his play certainly lacks the raw aggression and passion many English fans adore – which makes it seem like he’s not trying. He can get visibly frustrated, but a lot of that is reasonable – for one thing, his team-mates aren’t on the same high level as his former Real Madrid colleagues were, and, when he responds to the rough defending that he sometimes loses out to by trying to win the ball back with similar force, he’s usually penalised by referees who don’t expect a player like him to get involved physically. (Arsenal have sometimes faced similar problems when trying to respond to rough treatment from teams who insist they don’t like it when things get physical: referees expect teams like Tony Pulis’ Stoke to be aggressive, but when The Gunners try to fight for loose balls, it’s seen as out of the ordinary and often more readily penalised.)
A lot of people misunderstand Özil and miss what his game is based on: he’s a team player first and foremost, and as a creative player he relies on other players to make clever off-the-ball runs, play smart passes and to make the most of the balls he provides them with. Equally, the team relies on him as the technical leader of the side to carry a lot of the creative responsibilities. It’s a co-dependence, and one that pays off when both ends of the bargain are held up: Arsenal’s most fluid performances come when Özil is at the heart of things and his team-mates make the most of his diligent play. On Sunday, he played his part well enough – certainly well enough to avoid the criticism that has come his way – but the rest of the team struggled to perform. When he played incisive through-balls, they weren’t finished; when he tried to change Arsenal’s tempo, his team-mates took too many touches and slowed things down; when he made attempts at quick link-up play in the centre, those attempts weren’t reciprocated.
The greatest quality that Özil brings to Arsenal is the combination of his passing and his intelligence. His clever movement allows him to find pockets of space in which to receive the ball, and his understanding of the game allows him to almost always make the right decision on the ball, while his exemplary technique means he executes those passes well. This was no different against West Ham, as the German used his passing to often provoke the opposition defence with incisive passes and at other times to control the tempo of Arsenal’s attack and keep things ticking over.
The hefty £42.5M price-tag, as mentioned earlier, means that fans expect Özil to win games on his own, and the fact that Alexis Sanchez has proven capable of doing so has made fans demand the same from his more expensive team-mate. There’s a key difference to the two, though: Alexis is an individualistic player whose primary focus in the Arsenal team is on scoring. He uses his dribbling and shooting ability to make the difference in the final third and he’s able to do that, which fans notice more readily since it’s more obvious. He doesn’t rely so much on Arsenal playing well as a team, but more on his own skillset which allows him to do things on his own, a quality which not many players have.
In contrast, Özil, although a very capable dribbler and finisher, focuses more on the team and as a result contributes more to Arsenal’s all-round play with his intelligent passing, while also concentrating on providing goals instead of scoring them, as that’s where his biggest strengths lie. It means he relies more on his team-mates than Alexis does: when Arsenal play poorly, Alexis is still able to shine by doing things on his own, whereas Özil’s performances are made to look worse because he isn’t as able to provide assists when Arsenal don’t play well, nor do eye-catching things like Alexis.
The contrasting approaches of Özil, the collective team player, and Alexis, the individualistic lone ranger, have pros and cons, but the criticism for Özil not being the sole difference-maker in attack for Arsenal doesn’t fit with his game. It’s not surprising that Özil started to look better when Alexis came on, in spite of his lack of fitness, as he was making smart runs which both gave Özil more space and also allowed him to play penetrative passes which were turned into shots on goal by Alexis. The German is well and truly capable of making the difference for Arsenal, in that he can supply a killer pass to set up a goal. He just needs somebody to make a run.
Arsenal were heavily reliant on Alexis’ goals during the first half of last season, but, in spite of his valuable contributions in front of goal, Arsenal’s performances were still lacking without some of their key players. Most notably missing was Mesut Özil, whose return to the side in January coincided with an improved run of form. It’s often the case that Özil’s qualities are more noticeable when he’s not in the team, because Arsenal are a visibly worse team without him probing, prompting and provoking. He can’t do everything on his own, because that’s not where his talents lie, but Arsenal usually look lost without him.
Taking all of this in mind, it’s unfair to single out Özil for criticism in response to the West Ham game. It’s probably unfair to single anybody out, since there were several below-par performances on a bad day for Arsenal, but it’s particularly unfair to single out Özil, who did very little wrong and can feel a little let-down by his team-mates. Neutrals were keen to criticise the German in order to praise Reece Oxford, who didn’t look out of his depth at all despite his youth, but Oxford’s surprisingly mature performance didn’t stop Arsenal’s playmaker from being influential. People just think he wasn’t influential because he didn’t score or assist, which unfortunately is often the assumption that people make with Mesut Özil.
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