We need to talk about how we talk about Mesut Özil

We need to talk about Mesut. In fact, we don’t, we need to talk about how we talk about Mesut. 

I started writing this a couple of days after Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat away at Stoke where Özil was heavily criticised for his defensive display, labelled a ‘liability’ by Gerrard and Keown, who both suggested Arsenal are essentially playing with ten men when they don’t have the ball. Not the first time Özil has been singled out and most likely not the last.

This obsession with singling out Özil’s defensive work rate and supposed lack of effort is a peculiar one. It’s widely known that he consistently covers more ground and makes more sprints per game than most in the league.

His heat maps always show high numbers of touches across a greater area than most. Delve into the nerd nonsense of last season’s defensive stats (according to whoscored.com) and his numbers really aren’t that bad.

Comparing him to players who started 20 league games or more in similar positions for top six clubs – Hazard, De Bruyne, Coutinho, Silva et al – Özil was far from being the worst defensively.

The German made 0.8 tackles a game compared to Hazard’s 0.5 (worst) and De Bruyne’s 1.4 (best), but made the joint least interceptions per game along with Silva (0.5) where as Hazard made the most (0.8). Özil made 0.3 clearances per game compared to Sanchez & Hazard’s 0.1 and Eriksen and Silva’s 0.6 yet only Sanchez was dribbled past less per game (0.7), compared to De Bruyne’s 1.8.

This isn’t, by any means, going to convince anyone that Özil is a defensive powerhouse, but none of these players are. The marginal differences between the players, with no-one dominating all areas, suggest that it’s not something that warrants the amount of attention it gets.

With the ball, Özil shines. In last season’s league campaign, again including the aforementioned players, he completed the most passes per game (55.5 out of 63.9) at a percentage bettered only by Silva (87.2 compared to Özil’s 86.6).

He created an average of three chances per game, with only Christian Eriksen creating more (3.1), and was dispossessed the least (1.2 compared to Sanchez’s 3.4 times per game).

Despite his assist numbers being down on the season before, he ended with his highest goal tally in an Arsenal shirt.

One of the most common accusations, memes or go to areas for #onlinelolz is that Özil regularly goes missing.

Stoke Police even got involved after the Stoke defeat with a lame attempt at Twitter banter.

It was poor Police work, because on the day he was Arsenal’s best player, creating five very good chances, demanding the ball, dictating Arsenal’s attack.

This isn’t a one off. In high profile losses last season, notably the Manchester City and Spurs away games, he did the same thing he tends to do when Arsenal are behind: dropped deeper to get on the ball more often.

This isn’t to say at times he couldn’t do more, but few players can escape that accusation for 38 games a season.

When looking over the stats for this piece (using league and Champions League games as not all domestic cup games were available) it showed that actually Özil creates more chances per game at Arsenal than at Real Madrid one (3.13 to 3.08) but with a lower assist rate (0.44 to 0.33 per game).

He also makes around 50% more passes per game whilst maintaining his completion rate of around 85%. The numbers suggest he’s doing more.

Özil fans have often countered the ‘missing’ argument with the now infamous ‘he’s doing things you just don’t understand’ argument

Journalists love poking fun at this, ‘Özil was either missing or just doing stuff too intelligent for us to see’ is a common post match tweet. It’s easy to understand why these narratives exist, but just as easy to discount.

The thing that is rarely said about Özil is that so much of his game isn’t actually that eye-catching and can be, at times, quite dull. This isn’t a criticism, as a simple pass to keep possession understandably goes less noticed than an intercepted attempt at a killer pass.

But if it’s not on, it’s not on and Özil rarely tries it unless it’s on. He’s an absolute master of making the right decision at the right time, something highlighted by his ability to always find space. Always.

This ability to find that much space at the highest level comes from movements and decisions made long before our eyes and the ball have reached him, so we literally don’t see them unless we fix our eyes on him for 90 minutes.

Compare this to the high risk/high reward style of Alexis Sanchez, a one-man highlight reel of wonder strikes, misplaced passes and thunderous attempts to atone for errors, all of which result in Alexis being the centre of attention every time he’s near the ball.

Sanchez’s ball dominant style means he is less dependent on the players or system around him. The same can’t be said for Özil and since his arrival at the club, Arsenal have never surrounded him a consistent, high quality, balanced structure.

In the 2015/16 season, it looked as though Arsenal had found it in Cazorla and Coquelin, famously thrown together for that away game at the Etihad the season before and who had become the first choice central midfield pairing.

After 12 games, Arsenal were second only on goal difference, Özil had created 54 chances, made ten assists and had just put in a Man of The Match performance against Spurs. In the next two games Arsenal lose Coquelin and Cazorla to injury and the pair wouldn’t start another league game together until the final day of the season.

During this period, Özil’s assist rate slowed down, but he finished the season having created 146 chances, the most in a single Premier League campaign since 2003/04. Özil continued to do his job throughout the season, yet the removal of the Coquelin/Cazorla partnership, plus key injuries to Koscielny and Sanchez around the same time, stripped much of Arsenal’s defensive stability and attacking potency.

Last season, a similar pattern played out. After eight games, Arsenal were second again only on goal difference.

The arrival of Granit Xhaka had seen Wenger experiment with a Xhaka/Cazorla partnership in games like Swansea at home and Watford away but when Arsenal destroyed Chelsea 3-0 at the Emirates, it was Cazorla and Coquelin who started. Özil was man of the match, scoring the third.

When Arsenal were 2-0 up, Coquelin went off injured. A few weeks later, Cazorla gets injured against Ludogorets and hasn’t played a game since.

Nine games later, Arsenal are nine points behind Chelsea in fourth. Wenger experiments with a number of midfield pairings, but none of them really click and Arsenal stutter through the rest of the season to finish fifth.

It’s key to point out here, that this isn’t suggesting the Coquelin/Cazorla partnership was, or is the answer to all of Arsenal’s problems. The partnership itself, whilst being effective, was far from perfect.

Whilst Cazorla’s ability to move the ball allowed key attackers to be on the ball sooner, his lack of dynamism could leave Arsenal light higher up the pitch.

Coquelin clearly complimented Cazorla better than any other midfielder in the squad, yet his limitations as a footballer were painfully exposed during a number of key games over the last few seasons.

It does, however, seem to have been the most effective centre midfield pairing Arsenal have had since Özil’s arrival so far, despite being one Wenger stumbled upon.

Whilst being obvious to people who watch them every week, after Arsenal’s 4-0 defeat away to Anfield seemed to be the first time that these issues of a lack of balance, lack of a plan or any kind of footballing identity have received widespread media coverage.

Whenever Liverpool broke in the first half, Ramsey and Xhaka were continuously found higher up the pitch than Özil, who regularly dropped into the holding midfield position.

Özil was undoubtedly poor, but he was by far from being the worst Arsenal player on a day which seemed to act as a magnified version of many of Arsenal’s recent problems at once.

The focus seems to be finally shifting from Özil to the larger issues at play around him.

Compare this to Özil’s final season at Real Madrid where Modric, Khedira and Alonso all made over 40 appearances and Michael Essien made 35.

A balanced and consistent midfield that Arsenal have never achieved in his time at the club. Without that balance, I’d argue that the negative aspects of Sanchez’s game cost Arsenal more than Özil’s.

Sanchez’s tendency to give possession away cheaply, coupled with Arsenal’s openness in midfield has been frequently costly, yet it’s something the Chilean rarely gets pulled up on due to his attacking contribution, a luxury rarely extended to Özil. Rarely does an Özil error put Arsenal in imminent danger.

So why is he regularly singled out? Sanchez was rightly Arsenal’s player of last season, but without Özil’s yin, would Sanchez’s yang have been so… yangy?

Such an individualistic and unpredictable player who hogs the limelight needs a presence like Özil’s. The pros in Sanchez’s game rarely get caveated by his cons, but that’s continuously what happens with Özil, despite his flaws not warranting the amount of attention they receive.

Essentially, Özil is criticized for making difficult things look simple and doing the right thing most of the time. A skill apparently unfitting of a world class footballer.

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Ryan Hunn

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