This weekend saw the wounded animal that is Arsenal limp past the finishing line against a spirited but limited Sunderland. Despite impressive performances from Aaron Ramsey and Nacho Monreal, there was only one candidate for man of the match. Again.
Our genius number 10 who wears the number 11 shirt ran the game for Arsenal, and created the opener with an assist that could only be described as inch perfect. Yet another milestone in a season the player freely admits is the best of his career. Having already broken the record for assists in consecutive games in the Premier League, he now looks odds on to break the season assist record, held by a certain Thierry Henry. With 12 from only 15 games played (and he missed one of those!), he needs nine more from the remaining 23 fixtures to set a new benchmark. Let’s face it, if he doesn’t, our title challenge will go up in smoke fairly quickly.
Even without his assists though, Özil’s recent performances, when the team has been stuttering, have been nothing short of exceptional, as well as being remarkably consistent. As I have commented in my column before, the change in his fitness and strength levels, and on-pitch demeanour since his last significant injury just over a year ago has been a joy to watch. The almost ephemeral, intangible subtlety of oiling the machine, punctuated by moments of impossible genius that so divided opinion has evolved into something else. The Özil of 2015/16 is more assured, more demonstrative, and is in control. Somewhere along the line, this has become HIS team, and as such he has become its ‘technical leader’, a phrase formerly used by the manager to describe the roles of Bergkamp and Pirès in the Invincibles squad.
As such he is deciding games by will as much as skill at present, demanding the ball, getting into goal-scoring positions and even chasing back and winning tackles to protect leads. The player that was habitually substituted in the last 20 minutes at Real Madrid is now often seen running the channels deep into stoppage time, and his now already famously undervalued ‘distance covered’ stat is seemingly still on the up. It seems his “huge physical potential” is even greater than the manager imagined.
That said, as ever, Le Boss saw the step up before it materialised on the pitch, and commented as such in August;
“In the second part of last season we saw the intelligence of his passing, the fact that he added some steel to his game that was needed, certainly in the Premier League.”
Looking elsewhere, it was interesting to see the impact of Aaron Ramsey’s return to central midfield. As Lewis Ambrose covered in detail here, Ramsey’s off the ball work created even more options for Özil artistry, and has been massively fruitful in an attacking sense in the past.
With a goal and an assist, he was undoubtedly relishing the opportunity to contribute where he feels most comfortable, the impact on the team was no great surprise to regular Arsenal watchers, but what this means in the coming weeks is more questionable.
There is no doubt that Rambo offers greater dynamism going forward and athleticism chasing back, but the other side of the double edged sword is a loss of control and positional discipline. Against the likes of Sunderland this equation was always likely to come out as a positive, but whether the same results will be yielded against unpredictable opponents like Olympiacos and Manchester City is a hard call to make. Even this weekend’s trip to Aston Villa is a potential banana skin, who are enjoying a slight ‘dead cat bounce’ under ex-Gunner Remi Garde, particularly considering the likely emotional knock-on effect of whichever of either of the possible outcomes is realised in Greece.
Both games also represent a significant challenge for the emerging man, Joel Campbell. Given his relative inexperience and lack of time in the Arsenal first team, his inconsistency is hardly a surprise. As such I actually found his performance at the weekend more heartening than more overall influential displays against Swansea and Dynamo Zagreb. After a fairly anonymous and ineffectual first 25 minutes, the mid-match switch of wings I have been advocating for some time allowed him to make his vital intervention. He didn’t have a great game, but was decisive when the chance came via Özil’s slide rule pass. If he can continue to contribute while honing the rough edges of his game, this squad could yet achieve something this year.
Similarly, Giroud bouncing back from his first half cock up (on the back of a buffeting from Sunderland’s three centre-backs) was something to be cherished. We have all seen that, despite protestations to the contrary, Giroud’s self-confidence is a little more fragile than Walcott or Sanchez (unsurprising given his roundabout route to the top level), and a mistake or a bad miss can leave him struggling for the rest of the game. So, such a good finish in the context of a poor performance shows some of the mental fortitude this squad will need in order to cope with all the absentees.
With 17 headed goals, Giroud is the most successful player in the Premier League in this department since he joined the club, and since the summer of 2013, only a certain Mr. Aguero has out-scored him overall in the English top flight. His form may have dropped off in recent weeks, but if he can continue to have an impact while rotating with the returning Walcott, at least we’ll have a variety of real options somewhere in the attacking third! And of course the HFB is yet another who has enjoyed a surprisingly fruitful partnership with our main man this season, with the German laying on five goals for Giroud, and the Frenchman returning the favour with a similar number of pre-assists to the feet of Özil.
Working almost against the traditional expectation that Özil can only flourish around quicker and more explosive front men, this partnership is a perfect illustration of how the German has adapted his game to his surroundings. Indeed with better finishing, Giroud could easily have had 10 goals from Özil assists, and we’d be top of the league comfortably.
So our star man is grabbing games by the scruff of the neck, setting assist records AND making everyone else in the attacking third (bar the sadly off the boil Oxlade-Chamberlain) better.
Do you think he could have a word with the defence?