Mesut Özil accomplished something last week that is both damning to his critics and completely irrelevant to his fans; he failed the ‘eye test’.
At a key moment during the game against Everton, it appeared as if he wasn’t bothered with fulfilling his defensive duties. During the second half in the following game at Manchester City, it once again appeared as if he wasn’t pressing as quickly and as often as he was supposed to. It doesn’t matter that neither of these are true, but to the untrained eye, it looked like Özil just wasn’t trying hard enough.
Fans will find the most ludicrous reasons to defend a player, if they feel like that player is trying their best to win games for them. Just look at how Liverpool fans defended Luis Suarez after he first bit someone, then used racial slurs to try to provoke an opponent, then bit someone else, as an example of total loyalty to a player. But because Suarez always tracked back, always pressed the back line, always ran off the ball for a team-mate, he gave the impression that he was trying his absolute best to win. Fans don’t expect many things from their team, but ‘effort’ is always one of them, just because they themselves would always give maximum ‘effort’ if in the same position.
So when someone appears as if they aren’t giving that same ‘effort’, the criticism comes flying in towards them like a Charlie Adam tackle. Words like ‘lazy’, ‘luxury player’, ‘diva’ and ‘money-grabber’ are tossed around like confetti as fans vent their fury at the sight of someone appearing not to try as hard as they would. That fury is often multiplied by itself after a loss, and then exponentially so after a close loss. So when Arsenal lose two games in five days after leading in both of them, the world is fit to explode.
But is that fair? It’s easy to point at Özil and say ‘He should’ve done more!’ after he’s had two mediocre performances in a week, but it’s simply wrong to put the blame on a player who was consistently put into a situation in which he had no good options to choose from.
Take Everton’s second goal, for example. Ashley Williams lost his marker at a corner and scored a good headed goal. Özil was his marker. So it must be Özil’s fault that Williams scored, right? Well, if you were to hire a carpenter to fix the plumbing in your bathroom, and then water comes flooding through your ceiling, is it the carpenter’s fault for doing a bad job, or is it yours for not getting someone better suited to do the job in the first place? Whoever set up our defence that led Özil having to man-mark a centre-back screwed up massively.
Then there’s this from last Sunday:
Arsenal are indeed 2-1 down and playing for the title, just like Gary Neville alluded to. They’re also trying to draw Man City out of their own half and then hit them on the counter. If Arsenal were to press as hard as Neville wanted them to, the ball would just end up getting knocked around City’s back line. Arsenal were trying to tempt City into trying for a third goal, just like many teams do with Arsenal when they’re 2-1 up, and we’ve seen just how many times that’s worked against us.
Does it look like they’re ‘trying’? Of course not, but that’s how Arsenal have set themselves up away from home against their main rivals over the last few years. Has it been successful? Not particularly, as the excellent @7amkickoff illustrates here. Three wins in 22 away games against the ‘bigger’ clubs is far from title-winning form. Surely that again would suggest that the problem isn’t the players themselves but how they are being deployed.
It also doesn’t help Özil’s cause that during every game he plays in, he’s patiently waiting for a chance to develop at all times, whilst his main attacking partner is doing an impression of either Atom or Humber when they see a loose ball on a field. Alexis’ workrate is exceptional, and it definitely helps create chances from nothing, but for the last twenty minutes of both the Everton and City games, he was constantly gasping for breath, crouching down with his hands by his ankles. He was exhausted, and couldn’t contribute to the attack in any way. How is that of any more use than what Özil was doing?
Arsenal most definitely have issues to work on at the moment, but Mesut Özil’s defensive capabilities aren’t one of them. They’ve looked defensively shaky since Shkodran Mustafi got injured, and decidedly one-paced up front without the second playmaker in Santi Cazorla or Aaron Ramsey available to help out when Özil isn’t playing well. Alex Iwobi’s form has gone from a blip to a problem, and Nacho Monreal has lost a yard of pace at the worst possible time.
Instead of looking at ways for Özil to change his game to suit us, we should be changing the way we play to suit him. It might even mean playing him out of position on the left at times, so that Granit Xhaka can play with freedom further forward and have two defensive-midfielders behind him to shore up the back. There’s plenty of scope with the players we have to change tactics mid-season. It doesn’t have to be as drastic as Chelsea moving to 3-4-3, but something has to be done to give Özil as much chance to succeed as possible.
We didn’t buy Mesut Özil to stop us losing games, we bought him to help us win them. It’s time we stopped putting him in positions where he has to do the former, and started helping him do the latter.