What do the following have in common:
They’re all World Cup winners? No, there’s an Englishman and Dutchman in there! They’re all midfielders? Sure, but be a bit more specific. Give up yet?
Each one was a world-class central midfielder that spent far too much of their prime playing wide. Scholes was shoehorned on the left to accommodate Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard (#WhatATimeToBeAlive), Seedorf was shunted onto the left to balance out Cafu’s marauding runs on the right and compensate for Gennaro Gattuso’s general uselessness in possession. Schweinsteiger started his career on the right, but Joachim Löw recognized Schweini’s immaculate passing, intelligent positioning and lack of pace meant he belonged in the middle.
Each one of these players were at their best in the middle, but when you’re playing for one of the biggest clubs on Earth, you’re going to have to adjust based on your team’s needs. Sure, Scholes wasn’t the most natural wide-player, but he did a job.
Which brings us to Mesut Özil. The German-born Turkish wizard has captivated audiences this season with superlative performance after superlative performance. Just look at him put the ball on a dime for Kieran Gibbs to bundle the ball home:
He’s a man possessed at the moment, and is on-pace to shatter all sorts of assist records, including Thierry Henry’s record-haul of 20 in one Premier League season.
It’s no coincidence that Özil’s best season in an Arsenal shirt has coincided with his first, full pre-season with the Gunners, but the team has never been more suited to his strengths. How so? Well, throughout his first two seasons, Özil frequently came in for criticism that he didn’t run enough or offer enough impetus in attack. He was considered the sort of luxury player that maybe thrived at a juggernaut like Real Madrid, but whose flaws became more apparent at a club where he was entrusted with a larger burden.
Injuries, an ever-changing XI and no pre-season hurt Özil’s chances of truly bedding-in, but a larger problem was the squad’s make-up. Özil, throughout his career, was used to playing a more up-temp style alongside the likes of Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo and other Galacticos, so the transition to playing in a side that recovered possession and then pinned the ball around the opposition’s third of the pitch was definitely something he had to get used to. Not having other-worldly goal-scorers to inflate his numbers must’ve also been a factor.
But even at Werder Bremen, Özil was the chief creator in a squad that, in his last season, scored 71 goals in the league (one less than title-winning Bayern Munich). He *only* had the likes of Claudio Pizzaro, Marko Marin and Aaron Hunt (and Per Mertesacker!) with which to work with, but still spearheaded an attack that was stylish, adept at dragging defenses all over the place and put goalkeepers to the sword.
One of the more common, even lazy, critiques of Özil has been his perceived inability to play on the wing. By coincidence or sheer unfamiliarity with the squad, his poorer performances in his debut season were indeed on the wing, but go through his catalog on assists and you’ll witness a man who can hug the touchline like a traditional winger, cut onto the inside of his boot to deliver a venomous cross or simply prod and pick at a defense that isn’t used to having a pass-master dissect them from the wing. Indeed, Özil’s performance against Everton is a testament to his versatility.
And while it’s been proven that football’s greatest inefficiencies are aimless crosses from the wing (Manchester United famously delivered 81 crosses in a 2-2 draw with Fulham during the Moyes-era), but that’s an unsophisticated take on how a team can leverage their arsenal in the opposition’s third.
Özil may not be the fastest player on Earth (he’s no slouch, of course) and he’s very left-footed, but having Alexis Sanchez and him line-up on opposing wings, interchange positions and both come centrally as they see fit makes sense tactically. Having Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal (instead of Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna) definitely helps in this regard. Gibbs and Sagna, both footballers of some merit, weren’t particularly threatening when charging forward (not like that ever stopped them). Arsene Wenger still liked having extra men on the flanks because more novice defenders would naively track their runs too strongly, allowing the actual danger men to have space centrally. Against larger sides, this was usually suicide, but alas.
With Bellerin, a fullback who’s both a threat because of his speed and end-product, Özil can certainly play on the right and know that any over-lapping run by Bellerin will draw extra defenders away from him. Playing from the wing affords Özil more interesting diagonal balls, and all he needs is a sliver of time and space. Indeed, many of the chances Özil creates are already originating from wide:
Credit: Paul Riley
Monreal may not be a speed demon like Bellerin, but he’s as assured in possession as an full-back in the Premier League and he smartly compensates for Alexis’, shall we say, cavalier disregard for losing possession in dangerous areas.
So, why am I bringing up the possibility of Özil on the wing?
Well, Francis Coquelin’s injury will make it difficult for Arsenal to properly maintain a traditional 4-2-3-1. Sure, Aaron Ramsey *could* do a job as a defensive-midfielder, but it’s not ideal. Ramsey, for all his talent, chases glory too often to do the job alone. The possibility of Ramsey charging forward to make a run behind the defense leaves poor little Santi Cazorla to stem the tide of a counter-attack all by himself. It’s just not ideal.
However, shifting the formation to 4-3-3, most suitably with Theo Walcott in attack, and packing the midfield offers Ramsey greater freedom to lunge forward and allow the team to truly control games. Cazorla, for all his control, vision and technique, can’t control games by himself. Coquelin is a one-trick pony on defense and a no-trick pony when Arsenal have the ball. Which, is fine, he’s not perfect, but with Özil playing in the middle it necessitated that Arsenal go for the jugular, rather than slowly suffocate teams á la a Pep Guardiola team.
With Cazorla, Ramsey and, possibly, Mathieu Flamini in midfield and Özil on the wing, Arsenal will be able to revert to the more possession oriented-style that Wenger implemented from 2007-2010.
This may not be the best use of Özil’s talents, but the best part of purchasing players like him, Alexis and Cazorla is the ability to shift formation and tailor the style of play to the rest of the squad’s needs.
It’s not a permanent solution, and it may upset a section of the fanbase that unfairly clings to Özil’s impotent performances on the wing from two years ago, but this is a viable option that Wenger may investigate during the busy holiday period.