The first order of business has to be congratulating the Club and everyone who worked on that transfer.
I can’t believe there is anyone who follows the game seriously and doubts the quality of Arsenal’s latest German acquisition. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that Mourinho denying Demba Ba’s loan move to the Gunners was directly related to the Ozil signing. The former Real Madrid boss knows just how good a player Arsenal have brought in.
So let’s move very quickly from whether he’s world class to just what makes him world class. After the signing was announced Arsene Wenger said,
…he has all the attributes I look for in an Arsenal player.
It’s a simple enough statement but says quiet a lot because it isn’t an exaggeration or the typical platitude. Wenger prefers a very attack-minded approach to the game, often even at the cost of overall balance. When the attack doesn’t quite work the possession game can become a liability as we saw against Aston Villa where the visitors’ compact defence held firm against Arsenal’s attack for large periods. As more and more players took risks to break through, it opened the game up for Villa and forced the defensive players into risky tackles and errors of judgment.
There are two ways around this. One is to have a stronger defensive set up and the other is to have players who can get beyond the parked buses. Towards the end of last season and in the four wins in recent weeks, Wenger’s team have showed they are improving their ability to defend as a collective. But that alone won’t be enough – you play defensively against a relegation candidate at the Emirates and they’ll happily take a scoreless draw – and the signing of a player of Ozil’s ability will make breaching deep-lying, organized defensive units a more probable and enjoyable task on a consistent basis.
The German international has almost everything you would need in an attacking player.
Technically he’s exceptional. His first touch, whether to drop the ball dead or lay it off perfectly, is sublime; excellent close control gives him time in tight areas that few players can find; he can pass and receive the ball on the move, on the turn; and the weight on his pass, be it a through-ball, a set-piece, a cross, or any other attempt to reach his teammate, is impeccable.
Vision is an oft-admired, yet highly underrated quality in football. I think it’s because most people can’t see the crucial pass unless someone actually makes/attempts it and thus they don’t realize what was missing until it’s actually there in front of them. Wenger, obviously, does not fall into that category and would have been aware of the need for a penetrating eye in his team ever since Fabregas left. Cazorla is a class act, Wilshere is a phenomenon in the making, Rosicky is a brilliant attacking player, Ramsey can ping balls through defences, and watching Zelalem in pre-season was a genuine pleasure. But it is not slight on these players to say that Ozil, after his spell in Spain under the watchful eye and tactical brain of Mourinho, is a player on a whole different level when it comes to seeing a pass. Throw in his technical skills and that means he can execute it just as well and quickly as he can see it.
Selflessness is the icing on this cake. Good players make others better but the truly selfless ones elevate the team to a whole different level. It frees them to make the right choices over and over again. His mind is constantly scanning the pitch and finding the best path to goal. In the process Ozil can change the pace of the game, change directions, and combine with others in search for that vital opening. He won’t just look to make half a yard for himself before letting a shot fly.
Some might consider that a weakness. In fairness, his goalscoring ability is probably the area where there is room for improvement. That said, his conversion rate is actually surprisingly good. According to stats on the official website, Ozil hit the target with nearly 78 percent of his shots in La Liga last season and converted 41 percent of shots into goals. The temptation, based on linear extrapolation and trivial logic, would be to say he should shoot more often and, thus, score more goals. However, to me, the thing to admire here is his decision making and efficiency. Shooting more will not only reduce his efficiency but also squander opportunities that could be created for his teammates. Making the right choice in such situations is extremely tough. It’s not easy even from a distance with a better perspective and the help of cameras so pulling it off on the pitch requires a special talent. I have a feeling watching Ozil will be an educating experience for Arsenal fans, or indeed, most followers of the Premier League who are willing to learn instead of insisting their opinion is the correct one.
The Tactical Options…
Ozil will give Wenger a great deal of flexibility.
The obvious position for him is in the attacking midfield just behind the striker. For all his qualities discussed above, Mesut isn’t a guy who can put a great defensive shift in. His mind looks for openings to unlock defences but it isn’t going to find holes that he has to plug to make the team solid at the back. He will slide delicious balls through but don’t expect too many sliding tackles. It’s not that he will shy away from his duties but the manager will surely have to create a sturdy support system behind him.
The defensive intelligence of Arteta when paired with the industry and tenacity of Ramsey can work very well. Wilshere or Rosicky in place of the Welshman and Flamini instead of Arteta are also imaginable combinations depending on the quality of the opposition. This should give Wenger a decent chance to rotate players and make subtle changes to meet the demands of individual games.
Ozil is mostly an offensive player who can move vertically and horizontally into the right space but largely in the opposition half when the team is playing the possession game. He has shown discipline when playing in a counter-attacking German line-up and can be lethal when the team breaks forward quickly. But Arsenal don’t defend the way Germany do, at least haven’t done so in the recent times. Although the structural integrity has improved considerably and the team defends as a unit a lot more consistently, the Gunners have to work a lot harder to defend. Giroud leads the line, Walcott and Cazorla have some measure of freedom, but the three central midfielders have to work their socks off to support the back four.
While there is no doubt Ozil will add further bite to Arsenal’s breathtaking counter-attacks, he’s not going to track runners or provide cover to full-backs on a regular basis. As a result it’s hard to imagine him playing in front of the Ramsey-Wilshere duo, for instance, without the defence being compromised in games where Arsenal concede possession as they did against Tottenham.
With these thoughts in mind it will be interesting to see how Wenger uses Ozil in the period when Arteta isn’t available due to injuries. Could it be that the German’s arrival actually increases the starts that Flamini gets? It should be a welcome option if it gives players who’ve suffered from injuries, like Wilshere and Rosicky, more of a break between outings.
The other option is for Ozil to play on the right. Some people have a mental block when it comes to such flexibility. For instance, many still can’t wrap their heads around the fact that playing on the left was actually the best position for Arshavin. But those who study the game more carefully will not fall in the trap of boxing players into roles (which aren’t even strictly defined anyway!?).
Ozil often drifts towards the flanks, particularly to the right. A lot of his creative moments arise from that zone and Mourinho has used him there in some of the trickier games because it brought greater balance to the side. Wenger will also do the same, mainly in two cases.
Firstly, the German international could start on the right with his compatriot on the opposite flanks if Theo is injured. It wasn’t just that Ronaldo had the quality to get into the right positions and score at Real Madrid, Ozil thrives when there is someone on the left who can make those runs and finish the chances he creates. He already has excellent understanding with Podolski from all the time with the national team. Cazorla could move into the central spot and the three will produce some eye-catching combinations.
The other option is to have him on the right when Giroud is missing and Walcott has to play through the middle. In such an instance, Santi could play through the middle with a direct player on the left or Arsenal could go with five midfielders if they’ve to rely on the counter-attacking style against a strong team.
All-in-all, just one signing should give Wenger a fair few permutations to work with from a tactical point of view
Areas of Improvement…
No one’s perfect. I’ve touched upon his lack of defensive thinking but we also have to see how Ozil reacts to the physicality of the Premier League. Highlight reels don’t capture the gratuitous off-the-ball kicks to the ankles, knees to the back, and elbows to the face that technically superior players constantly receive in the English game. And I may seem biased but there seems good reason to believe those wearing the Red of Arsenal do so more than most others. We’ll have to see how Ozil adapts to that and if he has the maturity to channel his frustrations in a meaningful manner rather than picking up cards for losing his rag. Related to physicality, we’ll also have to see if he can play at the Premier League intensity for the whole duration of the game every three days during the peak periods. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t complete some of the games he starts.
The central midfielders at Arsenal have to cover a lot of ground and play a major role in retaining possession. They usually clock up a ton of passes and a lot of that is just safe circulation. I don’t know if Ozil is up that kind of donkey work, so to speak. It’s linked to his tendency to go missing from some games where it’s a hard grind in midfield. Will he drop back to pick up the ball from the defence when the deeper midfielders are being marked? Will he keep on passing and moving till an opening becomes available or will he go direct more often? Can he tune his mind to a more safer passing channel when the need arises? This might be an area where Wenger will have to help him evolve tactically.
Having played with a goal machine like Ronaldo, it’ll also be interesting to see how the German adapts to teammates who can be a bit more frustrating. It’s not easy for a player to see the perfect through-ball squandered by a heavy first touch. Ozil will also have to calibrate his game/thinking to suit the strengths of his new teammates so that wasted opportunities are minimized. What’s the point if the passer and runner aren’t on the same page!? This fine tuning might take a while. It’s not really a weakness but will surely be another test of his maturity and on-field leadership.
Mesut Ozil is more than a marquee signing. He is a signal of Arsenal’s ambition and the hard work and sacrifices of recent seasons bearing fruit. It’s by no means enough but his arrival will surely lift the players and should boost the atmosphere around the ground. It should also give the detractors some food for thought, if it suits their taste that is. I see this as a first step in a measured approach and there’s more to be done to guarantee serious title challenges. But the discussions about transfer policy and predictions about Arsenal’s season deserve articles of their own so I won’t get into it right now.
The analysis of the Tottenham game is pending. I was going to do it tonight but this took precedence. Will be posting it tomorrow, there are some interesting observations to make. Thank you for bearing with me on that.Follow @goonerdesi