Mesut Özil is a curious player to assess. In many ways, he symbolises the gentrification of football writing. He’s a Jonathan Wilson or Michael Cox kind of footballer. Unusually for such an effective forward player, and one that is well backed up by THE STATS™, it’s often difficult to fully quantify his effect on a game. In trying to do so, it is difficult not to sound pretentious or like you are venerating the mundane for fear of being accused of not getting ‘it.’ To enthuse over his qualities is to ‘see the bigger picture’ in a Jackson Pollock painting.
When he first arrived, I would watch Özil play live and come away from a game thinking he had contributed little. Upon reviewing the highlights, I would arrive at a different view and conclude that, actually, he had a massive impact on proceedings. It’s like when you hover a fountain pen really lightly on a piece of paper. It looks like you’re barely touching it, yet when you take the pen away, you’re actually left with an enormous, unsightly ink splodge. See, it’s impossible to describe him without sounding kitsch.
I think this piece by Brian Phillips brings us closer to understanding Mesut Özil the player. He actually reminds me an awful lot of Dennis Bergkamp. I think some of the (understandable) mythology that has grown up around Bergkamp has caused us to misremember him slightly. In our sepia toned minds, Bergkamp was playing defence splitting passes three times a match and spent the rest of the time either arrowing volleys into the top corner or jumping on defenders faces.
According to THE STATS™ Bergkamp averaged just over 30 starts a season at Arsenal, with a shade over 11 assists per campaign. Excellent numbers, no doubt. But it means a lot of the time he wasn’t splitting defences, (or indeed defender’s faces) open. That’s not a criticism of Bergkamp you understand. My point is that for the large gaps between this both literal and figurative slicing, he was excellent at observing the technical basics. I could imagine Arsene Wenger describing him as “technically secure” in his trademark Gallic purr.
Özil is much the same. Just this week, Wenger described him as “a servant of the game,” continuing, “[He has brought] technical quality, vision and his absolute desire to play collectively in a very strong way. He is a player who has only one master, that is football. He does what the game demands, his ego does not stand in the way of his game, all the great players have that.” His former Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho even took a reluctant hiatus from self worship to say that “Özil is a player that instantly completes the puzzle of your team.”
These are all qualities that are intangible and difficult to quantify. There isn’t a metric for appreciation of space or simply making others play better. Nor is there really one for decision making. Bergkamp and Özil are superior calibre playmakers because of their altruism and their decision making. A lot of creative players are driven by a desire to stand out. For razzmatazz. That way lies garish boots and offensive haircuts.
Like Bergkamp, Özil knows to wait for the moment before attempting the daring. He understands that he is merely a receptacle for the team and his creativity is not a vehicle for self aggrandisement. His decision making is meticulous. This is why he is top class and a way that, Arshavin for example, was not. Arshavin did not have the same feel for the moment. He would attempt the difficult through ball every time and achieve it only occasionally. A lot of the time he just plain gave the ball away. (Fortunate for us then that he was so fastidious in winning it back again.)
If you review Özil’s pass to Monreal for Wilshere’s goal against Aston Villa, it’s difficult to relay just how incisive it was. Villa have ten behind the ball, they’re holding a good shape and everyone is pretty much where they ought to be. Özil has the ball just outside the centre circle. If you’re Paul Lambert, you’ve probably worked quite hard in training to make sure that those exact circumstances arise when Arsenal, and especially, Özil has the ball. Yet by spotting Monreal’s run before anybody else and weighting the pass perfectly, he instantly takes a machete to the tyres of Villa’s parked bus.
Whilst Arsenal’s ability to spread goals around isn’t entirely down to the German (8 of Arsenal’s goals in 2014 alone have come from 6 different players) it’s not a coincidence either. The good thing for us is, that he can still certainly play better than he is. He’s indicative of Arsenal’s newly found in game tactical understanding, even if he’s not totally responsible for it. A lot of it is down to familiarity germinating between teammates and a slightly higher average age in the squad compared to years past.
Wenger is a coach that trusts in the self determination of his players. In both a developmental sense and a tactical sense, he likes his players to work things out for themselves. He rarely intervenes from the touchline, preferring to use half time as his sounding board. Even then, past players and protégés suggest he speaks little, allowing players to talk amongst themselves instead. This might explain why Arsenal have so often been a better second half than first half side under his stewardship.
This works much better now that his team has more experienced performers and more leaders. Players like Mertesacker, Flamini and Sagna are leaders in a visible sense, whereas those such as Arteta and Özil are what the manager refers to as “technical leaders.” Wenger’s approach to developing players is much the same. He relies on the player’s self determination to improve. He hasn’t got a magic wand that turns shit into gold. Largely, he just gives players the environment to flourish if they are prepared to improve. His gift isn’t so much developing as spotting the raw materials of ability. Even some of his biggest flops have not been untalented players per se, they just haven’t had either the desire or the mental faculties to govern their own improvement.
In this environment, Aaron Ramsey has improved markedly and there are signs that Jack Wilshere is taking a similar curve into consistency. It’s probably the first time since Jack’s maiden season in 2010-11 where the weight of expectation has not been significant. In a settled midfield axis as a precocious youngster alongside Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas, he picked up the Player of the Season award in that campaign.
Ever since then, Jack has struggled for fitness in a team where he has been expected to be one of our star performers. With the arrivals of Flamini and Özil and the upturn in Ramsey’s form, Wilshere has slipped under the radar and been allowed to go at his own pace again. In an interview with the Gooner fanzine this month, revered football writer Paddy Barclay lavished praise on Wilshere, but with the qualifier “sometimes he tries to fight the world and then he looks ordinary.”
Wilshere has flourished in a more serene environment. The team control games better and rarely needs to chase games, he has a better calibre of performer around him and he doesn’t feel the need to “fight the world” quite so much. His last below par performance came at the Etihad, a game we chased forlornly. In this climate, Jack lost his head, flipped the bird at the City fans and landed himself an avoidable two match ban.
Wilshere really ought to iron that out with age and maturity. He certainly has plenty of examples to look to in the team for evidence. The likes of Szczesny, Ramsey and Gibbs will be just as aspirational as more visible leaders. There are few players on the planet that will provide him a more serene environment than Özil. In the meantime, Wenger might reason that his learning will be about more than just being told. LD.
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