Mesut Ozil is the most polarising figures, perhaps ever, to play for Arsenal. Hailed as the dawn of a new era on his arrival, his legacy evolved to match the success of the team recently – fleeting moments of brilliance, some quantifiable successes, but a gradual decline to the periphery of relevance at the top end of English football.
Ozil’s tendency to be a bit-part player – brilliant at the ‘bit’, mind you – in games has essentially led to him becoming exactly that – used sparingly and specifically by Unai Emery in his time in charge.
The problem with this approach, other than its threat to squad harmony by ostracising a popular player, is not so much about what Ozil brings on the pitch. The football public knows what this is: moments of genius, flicks, chips, bounces. That little bit extra.
It’s actually more about what Arsenal lose by not having him on the pitch.
Controlling the tempo
The Gunners’ most cohesive performances last season – think Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, Leicester and Bournemouth at home, all came with the German in the starting line-up. Ozil couldn’t claim to be man-of-the-match in any of those fixtures, but the skills he provided laid a platform for his teammates’ performances.
It’s somewhat stating the obvious, but the 31-year-old gives Arsenal a vital link between midfield and attack that they simply don’t have without him. Emery’s Arsenal have been characterised by their disjointed performances throughout his reign, but this can be better described as disjointed because of Emery’s team selection.
For all of Alexandre Lacazette’s and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s brilliance in front of goal, they simply do not have the capability to be able to control possession so high up the pitch for long periods of the match in the way Ozil can.
His ball retention is like few others: he can play passes that control the ball in areas of the pitch others cannot, such as near the penalty area. He keeps Arsenal a threat in attack at all times.
This helps Arsenal be able to control the game for long periods and in dangerous areas, not just fashion chances ad-hoc. It’s a form of defending from the front, the kind that Arsene Wenger used to speak about, but most importantly, it’s a form of tempo-setting – the very basis of playing a match on Arsenal’s terms.
Moving from wide to goal
Not only this, Ozil helps Arsenal do more interesting things with the ball. Too often this season and last, the Gunners have stagnated in wide areas during their build-up, with their squad not technically capable of breaking into dangerous areas while in possession. Put it another way: Arsenal lack penetration without Ozil.
The German is confident enough to move the ball into areas that Arsenal can be a threat from. Maybe Ozil himself can’t be as much of a threat from these areas as Arsenal fans would want, but he gets them into those areas, and at the moment there’s not a single other player that does that in Unai Emery’s squad.
Arsenal’s build-up play is eventually going to catch up with them. The Gunners don’t create enough chances to make the top four come season’s end. To address this in the short term, Emery must use his best chance-creator.
Starting Ozil isn’t going to make Arsenal any worse than they already are
Arsenal’s midfield has been laboured this season, to say the least. Too often immobile or defensively-orientated, it has lacked creativity and defensive awareness, resulting in a lack of goals for Arsenal, with plenty going in for the opposition.
Selecting Ozil with any other combination – be it Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos, Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira or Joe Willock, is not going to make Arsenal any worse than what they are now: a disjointed and passive team in the middle of the park.
In fact, Ozil’s creative endeavours, as well as the defensive thought and actions his presence warrants – say what you want about his effort, opposition teams always pay him a lot of attention – may actually help open up space and time for other midfield players.
Dani Ceballos, for example, has struggled since his inspiring debut against Burnley, often left with the brunt of the advanced creative burden despite being a naturally deeper player, and a higher-positioned player like Ozil may end up being the key to unlocking Ceballos’ assets, like his press-resistance and utilisation of compact space.
It might also allow Lucas Torreira to get on with what he’s actually good at doing – defending proactively – without, bizarrely, having to shoulder Arsenal’s creative burden in key clashes.
He’s got his flaws, but so does everyone at Arsenal
Although Ozil is a passive defensive player and a poor presser, so are Arsenal at the moment. Despite Unai Emery’s insistence that he wants his team to be a pressing side, Arsenal are simply not very good at it for a variety of personnel and tactical reasons.
While some would say selecting Arsenal will compromise Arsenal’s underlying philosophy, it’s hard to see what philosophy that actually is under Unai Emery. The only hard evidence is that Arsenal don’t score nearly enough goals, and concede far too many. Selecting Mesut Ozil will at least help with the former.
Ozil is a polarising player for a reason. Hot and cold, in and out of games and even whole seasons. While there are reasons he divides the Arsenal fanbase, both sides of the debate must acknowledge that there are reasons so many others think the opposite to them.
For all of Ozil’s strengths and weaknesses though, one thing is not divisive – Arsenal are not playing very good football right now, and they need to find solutions to their problems creating chances.
It just makes sense, therefore, to reintegrate their best chance creator, come what may.