On 4th July 1998 in Marseille, Dennis Bergkamp turned in a performance that for 89 minutes of the match was considerably shy of his brilliant best.
However, such was his class that despite being largely off his game, he was still able to produce two astonishing pieces of brilliance, one lovely cushioned headed assist for Patrick Kluivert in the first half, and then *that* goal at the end of the second, which secured his team’s safe passage through to the next round of the competition.
The best players come up with big contributions in the biggest moments.
On Tuesday night, Mesut Özil capped a fine Arsenal comeback against Ludogorets with a goal that Bergkamp himself would have been proud of, despite having not been at his best throughout the second half.
For the second match in a row, Arsenal had to dig themselves out of a hole completely of their own making if they were to claim all 3 points.
As opposed to unleashing a controlled onslaught like at Sunderland on Saturday, Tuesday night’s turnaround against Ludogorets came about as a result of grit and patient perseverance.
The attacking play in attempting to mount a comeback was measured and considered.
When Arsenal, having started involving Alexis in the game, were building down the left, Granit Xhaka didn’t charge full steam into the box to position himself to challenge for a low percentage cross from Özil. He paused, let Giroud draw the defenders, while he himself hung back and waited on the edge of the area, offered Özil an alternate option to deliver a cutback instead, and then calmly slotted home after the ball was duly delivered.
This was typical of Arsenal’s approach to getting back in the game.
Encouragingly, when looking for an equaliser and, eventually, a winner, Arsenal didn’t over-commit and leave themselves foolishly open at the back, like they have done in the past.
Previous Arsenal sides have got caught up in the moment, lost their heads, having let the adrenaline get to them and over-committed ahead of time and conceded further goals.
Recent examples include being 0-1 down to Manchester United in November 2014, with 6 minutes to go plus about the same added on for stoppages when Szczesny and Wilshere got injured. The game ended 1-2.
Having clawed back to 1-2 against Monaco in stoppage time, with the tie nicely poised, requiring two manageable goals in the second leg, Arsenal naively over-committed and conceded another away goal in stoppage time, making progression to the Champions League quarter finals highly improbable.
While holding their own at 0-0 after 70 minutes at home to Barcelona, knowing a goalless draw at home and score draw in the away leg would see them through, Arsenal got excited after a spell of prolonged pressure, over-committed in search of a lead and conceded twice.
Against Ludogorets was different and Arsenal were duly rewarded.
Having pulled it back to 2-1, Arsenal boxed smart for the next 20 minutes and were level before half time after Ramsey crossed for Giroud. This was Ramsey’s first start since pulling his hamstring in the Liverpool debacle on the opening day of the season. He looked understandably rusty, but will only look better and more in sync with his teammates in time.
When Giroud plays as Arsenal’s orthodox centre forward, he needs players getting around him and runners going beyond him. Ramsey is Arsenal’s best at this, closely followed by Walcott. With Theo unavailable, it’s not surprising that a rusty Ramsey was selected to play from the right supposedly to support Giroud.
When Alexis has played as Arsenal’s false nine this season, he has had the supporting runs of Walcott from the right, but also of Mesut Özil from the number 10 position, running in to the space that he has vacated. With Giroud restored to the first XI, Ramsey seemingly as his support runner, and Alexis playing from the left, you’d have guessed that perhaps Özil would have reverted to his pre-2016/17 style of play and been primarily a passer and enabler.
He didn’t revert.
Ramsey instead played a hybrid role and tucked in, creating something of a 3 in midfield, with Özil providing the primary support for Giroud.
This season, Özil has added another string to his bow and has even more weapons in his arsenal. Ever since his emergence at the 2009 U21 championships, he has shown excellent lateral movement, which enables him to stealthily pop up in pockets of space from which he can pick off probing passes with precision.
Last season, circumstances dictated that he had to drop even deeper than he’d have liked to to help initiate attacks. This season, moreso than ever, he’s getting on the end of attacks as well. In addition to being the best modern number 10 not named Lionel Messi, he’s now embellished his game and added some of the qualities of a shadow striker of yesteryear.
Now he’s added runs behind defences to his repertoire, Özil gives opponents another thing to worry about. This presents Arsenal with other options, namely that they could pick him out behind defences with measured through balls, but also aids him in teasing these runs, selling defenders, then dropping off into pockets of space to receive the ball short and in space. It gives Arsenal more options and adds unpredictability to their attacks.
Where is he going? Where do you pick him up? How do you stop him?
Özil scored what will go down as one of the more memorable goals of his Arsenal career, but it was by no means a vintage performance.
However, like Bergkamp vs Argentina, nobody will care about the other 89 minutes when he’s produced a flash of sheer brilliance in a big moment to help his team advance to the next stage of the competition.