So, after losing 4-3 at home to Liverpool, did anyone predict that by the middle of October, Arsenal would have won nine games out of the next ten, and that Mesut Özil would have SIX times as many goals as he has assists in the Premier League and Champions League this season?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the answer to that question is ‘No’.
Arsenal are in the middle of an impressive run of form, with their mercurial German playmaker doing more than just pulling the strings in the background. Instead of just providing the attackers ahead of him with quality chances, he’s now getting on the end of chances himself as well.
Özil’s new-found fondness for making runs into the box can be explained by two things, but both of them have the same key factor in them; trust.
For Özil’s skill set to be fully utilised, you need a formation that puts him in the centre of attacks at all times, and you need players around him that will make runs all day long for him to pass the ball ahead of.
For the first time at Arsenal, he has both these things being implemented. With Alexis Sanchez’s deployment at centre-forward, and with all three forward players interchanging positions at will, there’s almost never a time when Özil doesn’t have a good pass available to him.
You have to think of Özil as if he were an NFL quarterback [I wish we didn’t – Edit].
If he has good wide receivers, and they keep getting open down the field, his job becomes significantly easier and thus he can perform more efficiently. If his receivers can’t find space, then play breaks down and the quarterback gets all the criticism for something he can’t control.
For two years, Özil didn’t have enough ‘receivers’ on the field for him to be effective.
With Alexis and Theo Walcott stuck on the wings and Olivier Giroud standing in the middle acting like a pinball machine, Özil was forced to stay 25-30 yards out from goal and create from afar as those ahead of him worked in limited amounts of space.
As we have seen since the start of the season, this is no longer a problem.
With Alexis playing almost as a false 9, and the likes of Walcott and Alex Iwobi filling in at striker when Alexis drops back for the ball, there is now no need for Özil to stay in one place all the time. For the first time in his Arsenal career, Özil knows that the burden is not solely on him to create chances for others, as they’re doing a fine job of it themselves.
This is where trust comes into it.
It’s one thing to be able to pick out a pass or anticipate a run being made before it’s occurred. It’s another thing to actually make that run in the hope that someone else spots it and finds you with the pass that you know you would have made.
When you’re so accustomed to making chances for others, it’s hard to convince yourself that you can also make a run behind the backline, unless you’re supremely confident in the knowledge that someone else can handle the task of picking you out with a pass.
Where does Alexis always put his crosses or through balls? Towards the back post, which is where the space is when defences crowd around him.
Where has Mesut Özil been running when Alexis has the ball? Back post.
Where did he score at Watford? Back post.
Where did he score against Swansea? Back post.
Who passed the ball both times? Alexis.
The knock-on effect for Arsenal is huge, because now that Özil doesn’t feel like he has to hang back in order to create for others, their new tactic of playing three positionless forwards suddenly takes on a whole new dimension, as Özil is now playing as a Bergkamp-esque striker and Arsenal are in essence playing 4-2-4 with all four attackers having the freedom to switch positions at will.
Not only is this a nightmare for defenders to cope with, not knowing from which position the next attack is coming from, but counter-attacking is now a far more potent weapon, thanks to the lack of requirement for those further up the field to play a certain role. They can literally attack at will, because they know that others will fill in around them accordingly.
Trust is something that takes a hell of a lot of time to gain, and very little time to lose.
Granit Xhaka is learning this as he takes a spell on the naughty step for his rash ‘tackle’ last weekend, and may find it tricky for a little while to get a run of games in the first team again.
He’s better than Francis Coquelin, but as long as the manager doesn’t trust him to keep his temper, he won’t play him.
The last seven days have shown just how much that trust is a factor in how successful Arsenal can be.
If Özil continues to believe that the likes of Alexis, Iwobi and Ramsey can be trusted to fill in for him as chief creator, then Arsenal’s attacking play will be extremely potent for some time to come.
If Arsene Wenger can’t be convinced to trust Xhaka’s ability to maintain his composure for 90 minutes, then Santi Cazorla’s continued fitness becomes imperative again, just like it was last season.
With two eminently winnable home fixtures coming up, Arsenal still have plenty to work on that needs focus. For example, both Swansea and Ludogorets were able to attack through midfield almost at will.
But there are definitely signs of this Arsenal team turning from a good side into a really good one, as long as everyone involved trusts the process.