Mesut Özil is back, the FA Cup is back, and the two will forever remind us of the 2013/14 season and how they signalled the end of an unhappy era in the modern history of Arsenal Football Club.
After years of prudence and developing emerging talents, the signing of Mesut Özil in September 2013 signalled the winter of our discontent from transfer windows past.
The signing could even be seen as something of a watershed moment; the club had been released from its financial shackles and after years of building a sustainable model, we are finally getting the rewards.
First came Özil, and then Alexis Sánchez.
Fast-forward a little more than eight months after the German arrived and Arsenal were lifting their first trophy since 2005, snapping another stick that has been used down the years to criticise us.
Özil shouted “Yah, Gunners, yah!” down the lens of a camera at Wembley that day. I couldn’t agree more.
It really doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that the infamous barren spell came to an end when the club was no longer constrained financially.
This time last year Mesut Özil (£42M signing and soon-to-be World Cup winner, no less) played 90 minutes in a home tie against League 1 side Coventry City. A sea change from the cup policy Arsène Wenger has been oft criticised for, the Arsenal manager now had financial backing and knew it was a case of now or never: he had to deliver some silverware.
For me Özil’s standout performance in his debut season also came in the cup.
The 4-1 quarter-final win over Everton was fantastic and the German was at the heart of it, scoring the opening goal and assisting the fourth. The sun shining on a warm day for what felt like a real cup-tie.
Both sets of fans seemed optimistic, the atmosphere was great, and the football was of a really high standard.
There are a couple of moments from that game that really stuck with me and both involved Özil doing a job in wide positions.
In the first half the German tracked Kevin Mirallas for 70 yards, held his own physically, and won a goal kick. The ‘lazy’ brush that Mesut was so often tarred with had never seemed accurate to me but it was certainly out of the ordinary for him to receive what felt like a standing ovation for carrying out gritty defensive duties.
The other moment was a much more predictable scenario as the German, again out wide on the left, carried the ball nearly half the length pitch while surrounded by blue shirts and completed deserted by his own teammates, eventually winning a throw near the corner.
Nothing spectacular. But he rarely is.
A few months after that FA Cup win, Arsenal signed another superstar in Alexis Sánchez.
Özil is the antithesis of Sánchez.
The diminutive Chilean flexes his muscles, works his socks off, and acts on impulse and passion. There is a thought behind every step that Özil takes, every pass is well-considered process.
Where Alexis were to resemble a rocket launcher, Özil would embody very subtle but effective ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach.
He quietly dominates games, pulling the strings. As Wenger has said, Özil always looks good when you watch a match for the second time.
So how and where does Özil fit into this Arsenal team?
An Arsenal side coming off the back of its most convincingly resolute performance in a fair while, no less.
Last week’s approach at Manchester City was one built for Sánchez. Hard-working and fast-breaking, Arsenal stifled City before thrusting with pace and urgency into the gaps that had been left.
Both goals, however, came from set-pieces, and – given the space that was afforded – the team will likely be a little disappointed that they didn’t create anything clear-cut from any of those counterattacks.
Is that where Özil comes in?
His composure and vision would surely have led to more chances in that game, but whether or not he could carry out defensive duties with the diligence of Alexis or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is doubtful.
He cannot really play in one of the central roles in that shape as he lacks Santi Cazorla’s unique combination of quick-feet, guile, and pure determination (Cazorla recovered the ball more than Arsenal player bar Francis Coquelin as well as completing the most dribbles) and, while athletic, Özil cannot play the box-to-box role of Aaron Ramsey.
What’s sure as far as I’m concerned is that Özil can spot and then play an eye-of-a-needle pass no problem.
If Arsenal set up in a way that allows for teams to be hit on the break he could tear them apart when afforded the space that Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey, and Alexis receive, those players often let down by a heavy touch or by rushing. They can all be accused of profligacy in attack to varying degrees.
It’s not that they’re thoughtless; rather that nobody thinks as calmly and precisely as Özil.
Arsène Wenger said this week that his personal preference is to have Özil play in the middle.
In some games a 4-2-3-1 may still be used, particularly in games where Arsenal are at home and/or strong favourites, but one has to imagine the manager will be reluctant to stray from the blueprint he now has from the victory at the Etihad Stadium last weekend.
In actual fact, it was no new thing.
Last season Arsenal camped behind the ball in games in Dortmund and Munich, looking for a chance to break. It worked in the 1-0 win in Dortmund.
In Munich, Özil was even played out wide for the first time in an Arsenal shirt, but couldn’t get involved before going off injured at half-time.
This season Wenger had very little pre-season with the majority of his squad but still tried to change the team to create a more compact and energetic midfield force. The 4-1-4-1 used in Manchester last weekend was a more polished version, but it had also stifled Chelsea at Stamford Bridge back in October – Özil’s last start.
The key difference was who scored the first goal.
In October Özil played wide and Chelsea managed just two shots on target (from a total of five shots) as Wenger’s new formation was tested for the first time, showing a propensity for greater stability than in previous years.
‘Scoreboard journalism’ is unfortunately the norm and another defeat in a big game led to people ignoring what actually happened and instead label the manager as tactically naïve yet again. The approach to that game at Stamford Bridge was the same as the one we witnessed last weekend.
Wenger, then, is clearly prepared to use Özil out wide in these fixtures.
He performed there during the World Cup and was one of the best players in the Final, up against Manchester City right-back Pablo Zabaleta. Germany never played as defensively as Arsenal last weekend but Özil clearly can play in that wide role when the team requires it.
The freedom he’s afforded when Arsenal are in possession is unlikely to blunt his creativity too much and – as I’ve already said – Arsenal could’ve done with his brilliance in Manchester as a number of breaks went by without a chance being created.
Last season Arsenal were worse without Özil, and Özil was worse without Ramsey and Walcott running beyond him. Likewise Ramsey in particular has struggled without the intelligent movement and understanding of space that Özil possesses. There is no shortage of dynamic players in the squad now and the German is better than anyone at finding them.
Fitting them all into a team which will then maintain defensive solidity may be a headache but it’s the sort of challenge that Wenger will likely relish.
Hypothetically – just for fun – I’d like to see a diamond employed sometime. It would naturally pose it’s own issues but it would help us play a compact midfield as well as Özil centrally – see this from @cabinet96.
Mesut Özil doesn’t have the burst of pace of Sánchez, Oxlade-Chamberlain, or Walcott, but paired with one or two of them in the right way he undoubtedly makes this Arsenal team more complete.
How the manager fits him into this system could be a problem, but it’s one hell of a problem to have.
If – like those games against Argentina and Everton – we can regularly get the best out of him, a wide role won’t even be able to stop him from taking this team to another level.