For many, the highlight of Saturday’s win against Swansea was birthday boy Mesut Özil’s sumptuous volley.
It was his third goal of the season, but Arsenal’s creator-in-chief is yet to register his first assist of 2016/17. Given the shift in dynamic at Arsenal over the summer, this has not turned out to be the problem you would have foreseen it as this time last year.
That withstanding, make no mistake that this is still very much Özil’s team. The technical wizard is still the creative hub of the team and Arsenal would be far less aesthetically pleasing to watch and decisive in possession without him on the pitch. He’s just getting a little more help from his friends than he was last season.
Adjustments in midfield and up front have totally transformed Arsenal. The side of September and October 2016 is far removed from the version of November and December 2015, who were totally reliant on the German for any and all inspiration.
For swathes of last season, Özil was dropping deeper and taking on responsibility for building Arsenal’s play from deep. This season, with a more accomplished controller and passer behind him in Granit Xhaka, Özil can station himself higher up the pitch, finding pockets of space between the opposition lines to operate from play telling passes.
His no.10 role this season has evolved to shoulder less responsibility for starting attacks, but more for finishing them. The balance of Arsenal’s team and in turn the duties of its no.10 role have shifted to be more in line with those of a forward than those of a central midfielder.
The deployment of Alexis Sanchez as something of a false nine in place of more orthodox front pivot Olvier Giroud, has meant that Özil himself has had to take on some more responsibilities for supporting his striker and running beyond him when he drops off and vacates the space where the centrebacks would look to pick up the opposition striker.
Alexis dropping off the opposition centrebacks and joining Arsenal’s ball players in midfield forces opponents to think twice about whether to remain sitting deep, or whether to step out and compete for the ball in midfield and look to reduce Arsenal’s numerical advantage. While stepping up would open them up to the threat of Theo Walcott’s pace in behind, it’s often the only way to prevent Arsenal’s technicians toying with them until someone makes a momentary lapse to let them in.
Generating situational overloads from open play manipulates the opposition defence, as it forces them to react, adjust, and take up positions they wouldn’t want to in order to stave off the added threat of the additional man, or men. It’s a great way to break down stubborn sides as it creates indecision and panic.
Another change to the forward line has seen Alex Iwobi drafted in as a drifting secondary creator, taking up a different role nominally from the left to the one that was performed by Alexis last season. Over the summer, there were calls for Arsenal to sign a Draxler, or a Götze, or an Isco, to play a supporting role and be the Nasri to Özil’s Fabregas and share the creative burden, but Wenger instead challenged Iwobi to step up and make the role his own. Early signs are encouraging.
After a promising opening 15 minutes for Arsenal, Swansea settled in to the game and managed to gain something of a foothold in it and halt the early barrage. Five minutes later, Iwobi saw the opportunity to drift and popped up in a pocket of space on the inside right channel. This sparked panic in the Swansea midfield, as Arsenal had additional men over, causing the visitors to adjust, which created an openings for Arsenal and sapped the confidence and momentum that the visitors had built.
It isn’t just Alexis and Iwobi who are providing these situational overloads. Rather than offering an overlap outside his wide man, at times this season Hector Bellerin has been making underlapping support runs. With Alexis rather than Giroud as a central presence, defenders would be more confident of dealing with a delivery from wide, so will be content to sit back, force Arsenal to go wide, and whip in low percentage speculative crosses to a player who, despite his phenomenal leap, is barely five-foot-six.
To counter this, Wenger has instructed Bellerin to make his move inside, operating in line with the penalty box rather than hanging out by the touchline, creating an additional problem for the left-sided centreback as well as just the leftback, playing the ball on the ground and threatening to break beyond them into the box. Challenging opposition defences with this added unpredictability has also made it easier for Walcott to make his own runs.
Whereas Arsenal’s build-up play and ball circulation last season from the hamstring epidemic of late-October onwards was ponderous and predictable, the last three home games especially have been anything but. These added quirks and adjustments from Özil’s teammates generate indecision in the minds of opponents, buttering them up so that one mistake, one sub-optimal decision, will create an opening for a perfectly picked pass delivered by Özil with surgical precision. After all the assists that he’s served up for them over the years, Özil’s teammates are assisting him in being the best version of himself he can be. While he’s yet to register an assist this season, he leads his teammates in chances created, but has been thwarted by a combination of good defending and profligate finishing. The numbers will come and there’s nothing to worry about.
In his first three seasons at Arsenal, Mesut Özil helped his teammates raise their game and play on a level closer to his. This season, they’re stepping up and challenging him to raise his own game and operate on an even higher plane than the one he’s already operating on. We’re yet to see the best of this current Arsenal team and I’d contend we’re also yet to see the best of Mesut Özil in an Arsenal shirt.