Enigmatic is a much-overused term in football but it does apply to a few select, talented players. The player who personifies this word possibly more than any other is Mesut Ozil. Ozil has been a polarizing figure at Arsenal since his arrival from Real Madrid in August of 2013. His quality is undeniable. On his day he is one of the most exciting, elegant players to watch in the Premier League. When we get glimpses of his full capability it can be staggering; his performance at home to Leicester on Monday Night Football last season being one of the standout performances of the season.
The problem with Mesut Ozil though has always and possibly always will be that these performances are too few and far between. Often disappearing, particularly in big matches against top-six rivals when Arsenal need him most, Ozil can be an incredibly frustrating player to have in your side.
With the emergence of Dani Ceballos in the early weeks of the season, Joe Willock looking very impressive and Nicolas Pepe coming in from Lille in the summer, Ozil’s role in this new-look Arsenal side isn’t clear. Particularly after being left out of the squad at Anfield after Unai Emery said he was available, many are questioning if Ozil can fit into this Arsenal side.
Ozil’s relaxed, laid back approach to the game, while adding to his allure in some ways, does not fit with Unai Emery’s energetic, pressing style of play. Emery has a more defensively orientated philosophy than Arsene Wenger which the German playmaker does not always work with.
There was evidence of this last season when Emery opted for Aaron Ramsey at the top of a diamond in midfield to great effect in a number of games like the home wins against both Chelsea and Manchester United. Again, at Anfield, we saw Emery opt for this midfield diamond setup, this time with Dani Ceballos at the top of the diamond.
One of the standout statistics from Dani Ceballos’ full debut was that he covered more ground than anybody else on the pitch, against Burnley. Although at times at Anfield the pace of the game and constant Liverpool pressure was difficult for Ceballos to deal with, he still showed flashes of his quality, helping Arsenal to beat the press and set up counter-attacks, and he could not be faulted for the shift he put in defensively. This work rate is as much of a reason why Emery pushed to get him to the club this summer along with his fantastic technical ability. Ceballos certainly looks to be the manager’s number one option in this position.
Joe Willock has been very impressive in his three starts this season. Many were shocked that he was selected from the start at Anfield but I think everything about Emery’s setup at Anfield was shocking. Despite the result, Willock performed well last weekend. His work rate was fantastic and for the most part, he used possession well and helped Arsenal play their way out of trouble on a number of occasions. Unai Emery is clearly a big fan of Willock’s game and has big plans for the Hale End product this season.
He was used on the left of the midfield diamond at Anfield and can operate equally well in a number eight or number ten role in the midfield which will give him ample opportunity to play a lot of games this year. His versatility is going to provide even further competition for Ozil to regain his place in the starting XI.
At times last year, Ozil was utilized on the righthand side with the freedom to float inside and create. However, with Arsenal smashing their transfer record to bring in Nicolas Pepe this summer, it is hard to see how the German fits into this role either. Pepe was Arsenal’s standout performer at Anfield, going past Andy Robertson on a number of occasions, something which not many wingers have been able to do over the last two seasons. Pepe looks like a very exciting prospect for Arsenal moving forward.
It does look like Ozil may be relegated to a bit-part player for large portions of this season. There are games where Ozil and Ceballos can both feature as Ceballos has the capability to play the more deep-lying midfield role to free up Ozil in the number 10 role. These tactics will only be possible in games when Arsenal are sure to dominate possession and could be quite the spectacle seeing them both working in tandem.
Games against bottom-half opposition are where I see Ozil playing most of his football this season. He will be needed in these games to attempt to unlock packed defences. This ability to create chances and open up teams who are camped on the edge of their own box is vital in these types of games.
Tottenham were lacking this ability on Sunday without Christian Eriksen against Newcastle and it was their undoing in the end as they slumped to defeat. Arsenal will face similar defensive fronts on a number of occasions this year and Emery will need Ozil at his best to ensure Arsenal don’t drop costly points in these games.
With the North London Derby looming on Sunday, there aren’t really any calls among Arsenal fans for Ozil to be recalled. Everybody is eager to see the front-three of Lacazette, Aubameyang and Pepe from the start and there is no shortage of fans who want to see Lucas Toreirra start in place of Granit Xhaka.
Ozil’s role will be this season remains to be seen but it does look from the early stages of the campaign that his role will be greatly reduced on previous years. This is quite the comedown for a player who Arsenal have been reliant on for creativity for the last number of seasons. In the end, I think the opponent will largely dictate if and how Ozil is used, but when it comes to matches against Arsenal’s top six rivals, I think he will find playing opportunities hard to come by.