I don’t often agree with Jose Mourinho.
I doubt I’m alone in that, and to be honest it’s something of a standard that I apply to assess how credible someone’s footballing opinions are. But when it comes to Mesut Ozil, the Chelsea manager is one of the few people who are prepared to speak out about the quality of our playmaker.
When you watch Ozil week in, week out, it’s easy to appreciate his ability and his intrinsic value to this Arsenal team, but our number eleven has found it difficult to convince those outside of Arsenal of his talents. The question is why?
Individual honours are usually won by players who like to be the centre of attention. When you think of Messi, Ronaldo, Alexis, Hazard and (at a lower level) Harry Kane, one thing they all have in common is they like to be on the end of chances, they like to be the ones making the obvious difference. It’s hard to think of player more opposed to this approach than Ozil.
When off the ball, he makes clearing runs to create space for others and drifts wide to allow others to ghost through the centre. When the opposition have possession he is focussed, not on individual ball-winning, but on the collective team approach to closing off passing lanes and denying options.
And when he’s in possession of the football, Ozil is equally selfless. He takes the old Brian Clough saying, “Give it to someone better than you,” and transforms it into “Give it to someone better placed than you.”
As well as eschewing the limelight in favour of making the right decision, he also focusses on doing the simple things perfectly rather than trying the spectacular. Of course, he shows us in glimpses exactly what he is capable of, with tricks to rival the best of them, but he only uses them when he is pinned in a corner and has no alternative.
Instead, whether it is a pass or a touch, Ozil delivers each stroke of the football with exquisite accuracy. Against moany Pardew’s men, he completed 98% of his passes, with over three quarters of those being in the final third. If we look at the opening goal, there is a beautiful moment of contrast between Alexis’ uncontrolled one-two with a Palace defender, and Ozil’s pin-point cross which lands in the perfect area for Giroud to strike it first time. There is a place for both these approaches, but Ozil’s is that bit more understated and garners less attention as a result.
It is the same when we are defending – Mesut’s style is to focus on the team position rather than his individual situation. It’s hard to think of an occasion when Ozil would chase down the keeper as he attempts a clearance unless the team are in a position to back him off, again a stark contrast to the likes of Alexis and Giroud. It’s ultimately that most German of traits – his efficiency – which sees Ozil focus on the benefits of each action and only do that closing down if it will have a chance of success.
If you watch him defending, it comes back to that mix of efficiency and selflessness – rarely will you see him making a tackle of any kind, let alone the brutal type idolised by the English media, but instead he will block passing lanes and effectively control the direction of play even when the opposition have the ball, by forcing them to pass in a particular direction. It’s no mean feat to direct the way your opponent plays.
This strategy often leads to Arsenal pushing teams back into awkward situations and allowing another of his teammates to make the tackle or interception that turns the ball over again. It’s not something you see in statistics, as he’s rarely the one to perform the action that does eventually win the ball back, but he is instrumental in causing it, the director general.
But it’s not just Mesut’s style which influences his perception – Arsenal’s team approach also has an effect. Have you ever watched a game live and then watched the highlights of the game on Match of the Day in sheer disbelief, unable to comprehend how they have managed to edit the footage to give such an “anti-Arsenal” impression?
Last season in particular, it was a common experience to saunter over to the Emirates, watch us dismantle a team, score a goal to win the game, and hold onto the three points after defending a couple of counter attacks. Then we’d head home, pop on Match of the Day expecting to enjoy a rerun of our excellent play, and find the delivered message to be that Arsenal had ‘squeaked‘ another 1-0 victory.
There’s a reason for that, and it’s the same reason Ozil often doesn’t get the credit he deserves: Arsenal play all or nothing football. Our players, and Mesut is chief among them, don’t try to create half chances which lead to shots from wide angles or from a long way out. Instead, they try to create chances which, if they arrive, will be front and centre – almost certain goals.
This means that over the course of a game, there are often numerous exhilarating moves which end in a pass millimetres away from a player on the stretch at the far post, or a heavy touch away from a forward being one-on-one with the ‘keeper. These are not the kind of moves which make the highlights reel, unlike vicious shots from 35 yards or a simple and expected save from a near post shot on a tight angle, but they are the small margins by which games can be won or lost.
Think of Mesut’s sublime pick-out for Arsenal’s first goal yesterday. It gets the replays because Oli put the ball in the back of the net, but had it been a couple of centimetres behind our forward, it would have been just another move that was merrily struck from the game’s history. But that doesn’t change the quality of the idea.
The English media
And of course the biggest reason of all is that the English media has a certain style that they idolise. Kicking, fouling and general skulduggery are often applauded as the necessary dark arts of the game, perhaps a reason Coquelin has been attributed with turning this entire Arsenal team into serious challengers. Outward but ineffective shows of effort, such as the futile goalkeeper pressing, are deemed superior to the subtler and more focussed efforts born of intelligence.
It’s not hard to envisage a pundit criticising the teammates for not supporting the player pressing the goalkeeper, rather than taking a moment to wonder why the forward is closing the stopper down when there is a simple pass open to either side.
Ultimately, Ozil is the archetypal Wenger player, favouring the effective over the showy, and of course it is not fashionable to rate Arsene or consequently his players.
He may never win league-wide accolades or even convince fans of opposition clubs to question the criticism drip-fed to them by the media, but as long as people continue to ignore Mesut and give him less than the hype he deserves, it only serves to make him more dangerous.
And when Ozil is dangerous, so are Arsenal.