Tactics Column: Mesut Ozil looks leftfield in search of inspiration

Tactics Column: Mesut Ozil looks leftfield in search of inspiration

Mesut Ozil found form of sorts for Arsenal on Saturday in their 1-1 draw with Tottenham, delivering a performance that showcased his usual understated subtlety, but one without producing the telling, final punch. He had one big opportunity at the start of the second-half, gliding into space on the right-hand side before receiving a neat pass from Jack Wilshere, but his shot was hit rather tamely at Hugo Lloris. By this time, Ozil was playing in his preferred position behind the striker as Arsene Wenger was forced to switch away from the 4-1-4-1 that saw Ozil start on the left following Aaron Ramsey’s injury.

The tactical reshuffle after the break didn’t inspire much of an upsurge in tempo; instead Arsenal fell a goal behind and though they equalised with plenty of time to spare, the performance overall, on Derby Day, just felt a little flat.

In this new system, Arsenal becomes a team without a principle conductor as such. Instead, there are many and though all got plenty of touches, neither could really get on top of a Spurs midfield which was organised and committed to spoil. Ozil, though, was probably the pick of the bunch, closely followed by Wilshere and indeed, it was the partnership between the two, particularly in the first-half, which caught the eye.

I say caught the eye because, for the first-time perhaps, there were visible signs that the switch to the 4-1-4-1 is not just the most rational way to shoehorn a number of princely conductors in – though shoehorning it is – or to play Jack Wilshere in his best position. Rather, there was a clear tactical plan that saw Wilshere fill in whenever Ozil vacated the left-flank thus switching the formation instantly into a 4-4-2. Indeed, in an interview with Huawei, Wenger says that his favourite system is one that is “capable of transforming from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2” and with a number of different combinations and partnerships available to him at any given time, the new system allows him to do that.

arsenalspurs1388r5There were other dynamics at play at the same that allowed the transformation to happen. Before the match, Wenger told the press that Ramsey needed to play deeper, and that’s what we saw more from him of, dropping back to help build the ball out and allowing Wilshere and Ozil to push forward. Also, on the other side was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who selflessly acted as an outlet by hugging the line all the time. This had the added effect of opening up space in the centre to allow Arsenal to push players between the lines.

Contrary to perception, partnerships are not necessarily about the amount of times two (or more) players combine with each other – though when they do it’s often telling. Generally, it’s about how you react when the team has possession; how you move off the ball to get into and create space, or from a defensive point of view, cover space. The most fluid systems are ones which are about little chain reactions: when one players moves, it activates the trigger for another to move into the space. Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere only needed so much as a glance to know when to switch places, as the GIF here shows.

Wilshere was selfless in this act, taking up wide positions when Ozil’s mood took him inside. As a result, we saw more effectiveness in Ozil’s movement as opposed to in previous matches where he’s played wide where often, opponents were able to double up on him.

Still, it’s hard to shake off that Ozil would be better off playing more frequently down the middle. His strength is as a provoker: trading innocuous passes then suddenly gliding into space. He does this actually, by going the other way – to the flanks – by creating overloads and then switching the direction of play with a quick pass or run. Indeed, his passes in the second-half, once he was switched to the middle, actually happened mainly on the left-flank (when curiously it seemed, everything after Arsenal had equalised, was happening on that side – as if there was a tilt on the Emirates pitch – with Alexis, Cazorla and Ozil all attracted to the flank).

Ultimately, this is the way Ozil operates. He sees the game as a picture within a picture, entering and departing each frame as he wills. Rosicky and Cazorla are different number 10s in this regard; more like extensions of the midfield who prefer to ferret and furrow than see the game as a mental flowchart, and as such are more suited to a wider role.

There is, nevertheless, science in playing a 4-1-4-1, especially in the big matches with Zdenek Zeman, the former Roma coach, saying that it’s the “most rational formation to cover the spaces.”

Certainly, the rotation that Wilshere and Ozil produced probably could not have been possible in a 4-2-3-1 without leaving gaps behind. It’s a shame, then, that injuries brought a premature end to the “experiment”.  With Ramsey out for 6 weeks, Oxlade-Chamberlain looks like his most natural replacement. That, or move Ozil back to the middle…

Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review

Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review

We begin this week with our sabre-thrusting victory over Villa of Aston. I was watching the match-up from the comfort of my wicker bath-chair, blanket across my lap, steaming hot mug of laudanum at my lips, when I required micturation. To clarify, I needed to point Percy at the Porcelain, I wished to reverse whisky, to create some Tottenham wine. At about the half hour mark, I called for nurse who dutifully wheeled me off down the east wing corridor, past the portraits of Arsenal Gentlemen past and to the nearest lavatories. I staggered to my feet, did the deed, and was wheeled back to my position in front of the lantern, to discover that Woolwich were three goals to the good.

Highly pleasing that Melvin Orwell bagged his first away goal – and with a gentleman’s favour from Welé, no less. A criticism of our new striker is that he lacks composure. Well, get your peepers around that pass, naysayers. He can run like a stallion when he needs to, and thrash a ball in the back of the net, but it seems that he can give the impression that he is smoking a pipe at the point of delivery of the final ball too. Delightful.

Are we to believe that Melvin Orwell asked nicely to play in the Number 10 role this Saturday last? If so, this is quite extraordinary and utterly splendid. How polite. Can you image that goatish crook-pated mumble-news Rooney asking nicely if he could play in that position? No, you cannot. He would advise his representatives to secure him a further raise for his mediocre services and then go on strike. I am proud to support a club where the chaps can ask the manager to play in a certain position. How very civilised.

We should note that Welé is off the mark, nudging the cat* at close range – his first goal in the league since March. All the chap needed was early release from the Glazer Miserydome for his true potential to be unleashed. In another example of wonderful politeness the gentleman’s favour was provided by Mr. Orwell. Whilst no Mesmertron, his defence splitting special, this was a lesser-spotted bumfuzzler. And not to mention the wonder strike from Aly Cissokho, who must have slipped into London Colney very close to the transfer deadline. That capped Aston Villa’s first league defeat in a game in which we dominated like a Sergeant major on cocaine. I am pleased to say that I got very drunk that evening with a couple of the boys from The Garrick. By eight I was as tight as a boiled owl.

Onward then and downward to the defeat of Arsenal ‘B’ in the Capital One Cup agin St. Mary’s Young Men’s Association. Early signs were promising with a lovely stationary Whizzbang over Smokers’ Corner**. As Shakespeare would say, “The temperature in this vicinity hath risen, promptly remove thy garments.”

Saunders is every bit as good as the brochure with four goals already this term – but then it went downhill faster than a fat lad in a tube. Whither Robinson? The scampering tormentor of defences past? Could we all be seeing what Mr. Windsor is (not ) seeing in young Cambelle? Did Ponsonby, the shinless wonder, still have one foot in the cocktail bar. Windsor, ever the sophist after the match said we were a bit light “because of the injuries”. Well yes, and also because of the not buying some defenders, wouldn’t you say?

A brief look ahead to Saturday’s teatime clash with the Middlesex Dons. A club, as we have recently learned, no longer being taken over by some Colonials, on account of them being a horrible gang of cut-purses with a horrible stadium in a slum-ridden area of London and a team full of hobbling no-marks. Let us not underestimate them, for the mighty Spurs, according to their website, were proud winners of the Costa Del Sol Tournament in both 1965 AND 1966 and the prestigious Sun International Challenge Trophy (Swaziland) 1983. Their potentate Signore Pochettino must be confident of pulling a result out of the hat tomorrow with that kind of history. Personally I hope every last one of the blighters gets a firm kick in the tallywags, especially that emaciated Gigglemug Soldado.

Anyway, I’m off to bitch the pot***. And when I say ‘pot’ I mean ‘bottle of gin’. Cheers!

*A side-footed goal
**The Wall
*** Pour the tea

Concept albums, triangle solos and Diaby at DM

Concept albums, triangle solos and Diaby at DM

On Saturday at Villa Park, Arsenal reverted to the tried and tested route. The slight change in the alchemy of the team this season has been, by now, well documented. Fans of narrative were presented with a gift horse when Mesut Özil was given a more central berth in the West Midlands and the German promptly orchestrated the home side’s demise.

#PlayOzilat10 had become a semi satirical hashtag on twitter in the days leading up to the game and the tongues of the mischief makers moved from cheeks to chins as they salivated over his display. Whilst I think it’s reasonably obvious where Mesut enjoys playing the most, I don’t think Saturday’s stroll was simply down to seating Özil on his enganche throne. I think there were other factors that became a little clearer in the disappointing League Cup exit to Southampton.

Whilst purring over the display of Danny Welbeck, which saw our new striker rack up a goal, an assist and a 97% pass completion rate, Wenger tellingly mused, “he contributes to our team play because he doesn’t lose the ball up front and those are important qualities.” Arsenal dropped Alexis and Wilshere to the bench and reintroduced Cazorla and Chamberlain to the mix. Consequently, Arsenal suffocated Villa simply because they did not surrender the ball.

Wilshere and Alexis are players that like to take risks in the final third, which of course all decisive players do to some degree. Your forward players passing sideways for 90 minutes isn’t likely to produce goals. Villa are a team built for the counter attack and the Gunners looked especially susceptible to the tactic in Dortmund last week. The answer was simply not to turn the ball over and give the home side the chance to break. Gabriel Agbonlahor (surely the diviest player to ever escape a reputation for histrionics) completed only four passes and three were from kickoffs.

With players such as Chamberlain and particularly Cazorla, Arsenal had greater technical security. Against Southampton, Arsenal were unable to mind the ball with quite the same conviction. It was evident that many of the attacking players had rarely played together before, if ever. But we also caught a glimpse of one of Wenger’s biggest challenges this season. Alexis Sanchez is a special talent and probably second only to Özil in the Gunners’ squad in terms of ability. Even in his nascent Arsenal career, we’ve had plenty of end product from the Chilean to moisten our gussets.

However, Alexis is something of a wildcard on the ball (or a ‘soloist’ as James from Gunnerblog termed him). He favours a very high risk / high reward passing style, which does see him turn the ball over often. In a passing side like Arsenal, and one that currently does look vulnerable to the counter attack; that does create issues. Though it’s obviously worth pointing out that if someone is bringing juicy ribeyes to the table every evening, you can probably tolerate them chewing with their mouth open on occasion.

Ultimately, Wenger has to find a way to marry Özil’s metronomic efficiency with Alexis’ more bombastic qualities. In turn, he may need to refine Alexis without aiming to change him. It’s a precarious line to walk but the manager has refined forward talents such as Henry and van Persie successfully. The 23 year old van Persie was a precocious talent, but possibly one of the least team minded players one could imagine. By his late 20s, whisper it quietly, he actually ended up making quite a good club captain. An irreconcilable change from the petulant young talent that we purchased.

That said, Arsene had a similar stylistic puzzle in Arsenal’s inaugural season at the Emirates. A waning Thierry Henry required a 4-4-1-1 formation with a Bergkamp-esque playmaker behind him to extract his best form. Whereas the impudent young Fabregas needed the incubation of a 4-5-1 system to flourish. Wenger ended up ceding to Fabregas’ youth and when Barcelona came knocking for Henry, he offered little resistance. He had already handed the keys of the team to Fabregas. On that occasion, King and Prince couldn’t co-exist peacefully.

I think Santi Cazorla could possibly represent the rhythm section to level out the two very different creative talents of Özil and Alexis. Cazorla was unfairly burdened as the Gunners’ sole creative presence in his first season in England. I suspect he is more Ronnie Wood than Keith Richards. He anchors talents like Özil and Alexis because he has enough creativity to jam with them, but enough of a sense of preservation to bring structure to the melody.

To torture the analogy further, without Santi, we could be in danger of going a little prog-rock. I definitely don’t want to see any of our players endure a concept album phase in a red and white shirt. Where this leaves Theo Walcott once he returns is a worthy question. Can Alexis and Walcott feature simultaneously as wide front men? It’s possible. Different games give you different problems, as we have seen in the last seven days.

Wenger intimated in the aftermath of the Southampton game that he is minded to try and turn Abou Diaby into a screening midfielder. ’I tried to develop [Diaby] in a deeper role, I think he can do it. He can be very interesting because he has all the attributes to do it.’ Of course some of the more sensitive souls in the Arsenal webosphere have taken this to mean that Diaby is our indefinite long term scratch to the defensive midfield itch. I think the truth is probably much more pragmatic than that.

Over the summer, I pondered whether Wenger might try and make this exact move. (Incidentally, my £3m invoice to Arsenal for ‘strategic and advisory services’ on the basis of this article remains unpaid). I think the reality is that Diaby would have to do something extraordinary to earn a contract extension beyond the expiry of his deal next summer. Arsenal are now well stocked in Diaby’s favoured position with the likes of Ramsey, Wilshere and even Chamberlain as long term options in the “number 8” role. We are not quite as blessed in the screening role.

Basically, we’re much more likely to need a body in front of the defence than we are in Diaby’s favoured position. If we’ve got him for one last year, we might just as well try and mould him into something more useful to the team. The Capital One Cup seemed like a good environment to help facilitate that change. Barring an injury crisis (!) I can’t see Diaby playing many games of much consequence there.

It’s certainly his last grasp of the vine at Arsenal. If he can stay fit and grow into the role, great. If he can’t, well it’s a break glass in case of emergency type of option until the summer when we (hopefully) get it together and buy a more realistic long term option. As fanciful as it is in reality, it would be the greatest resurrection since, well, Aaron Ramsey if Diaby were to grow into the defensive midfield player Arsenal fans had craved since the days of yore. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

Appreciating Mesut

Appreciating Mesut

At the highest level, there are relatively few footballers who warrant having teams and formations constructed around their style and abilities. Almost every player would benefit from a system set up especially to accommodate their strengths and weaknesses, but those who deserve that kind of special treatment are the ones who, with such support, feed as much or more into the rest of the side as is fed to them – those who enhance their team mates, and whose talents can help take their sides to a higher plain.

Of course, there can be a danger in building for the needs of an individual. The most prominent being ‘what if that individual is missing?’, which Arsenal learned to their cost in the case of Cesc Fàbregas, both while he was at the club and the years immediately proceeding his departure. The other major issue being if that central figure is struggling for form, and how the rest of the team will have to cope with that.

To a certain degree, this had been Arsenal’s issue with Mesut Özil this season. Özil is unquestionably both one of those players who merits having a system built for his needs, and one who needs it. A team arranged to get the best from Özil (and indeed Özil from it) will be successful and will create a large number of high quality goalscoring opportunities. And any team that contains Özil but cannot be identified by those qualities is, quite frankly, doing him a disservice.

When he first arrived at Arsenal, his effect was even more impressive than he was. He entered a team bereft of creativity and within the first half of his first game, had created a goal and three more clear goalscoring opportunities. Despite Theo Walcott’s struggles that day, the instant rapport between the two was promising, and Özil was helping to bring out the creativity in others. Arsenal looked instantly renewed.

Özil was also a huge positive influence for Ramsey going forward, and his struggles in the absences of both the Welshman and Walcott have been well documented. With Walcott out, fewer chances were created, but those that were made were of high quality and Arsenal simply leaned into being more clinical. It should be mentioned here that in the mere 6 games in with Özil as the central at-tacking midfielder with Walcott on the right, Walcott scored 5 and assisted 1, whilst Özil scored 1, made 2 assists and registered 16 chances created.

As previously discussed by everyone, Walcott and Ramsey were the players who lent themselves best to making the most of Özil’s creativity. The results with one or both of them combining with Özil, all in their respective best roles, stand for themselves. Yet as discussed, they were the only two. Arsenal’s squad had still not moved on completely from Fàbregas, and the mission for this season was to make it Özil’s side – where he would specialise, but also be surrounded by enough quality that there would not be the bordering-on-pathetic dependance on him that there was on the Catalan towards the end of his time.

Alexis Sánchez, Danny Welbeck and to some extent even Mathieu Debuchy can all be seen as players for Özil. Behind-the-line runners; and goalscorers, for whom clever movement is a central element of their game. Everything seemed to be set. Arsenal had been 7 points and a few tweaks in certain areas away from the league title, and Özil returned a World Cup winner to a squad that looked like it had been compiled in order for they and he to form a glorious symbiosis.

Yet, the season until Saturday had been such a non-starter for the German. There had usually been at least three or four instances per game of Özil producing a pass, or piece of skill that asserted his near-regal standing. But they remained as just that. Glimpses, instances and moments. Özil can and usually does control games in his understated, yet authoritative manner, but he had barely threatened to do so before his welcome reminder against Aston Villa.

The obvious answer to why this is would be the impromptu change in formation. Last season’s 4-2-3-1 was mostly highly effective, though it was dependent on its spine. The two centre backs, Mikel Arteta, Ramsey and Özil combined as the spine of a side that was mostly defensive, but swift, calm and efficient going forward.

It is possible that this formational switch was to lessen the dependence on Ramsey, Özil and even Walcott. Yet so many of those who excelled last year – in fact, all of those aforementioned ‘spine’ – struggled this season to varying extents in the 4-1-4-1. Arteta only played two games (and did well in one, dreadfully in the other), but Mathieu Flamini has struggled far more than he did last season where, for all his numerous flaws, he did a mostly passable job. Ramsey and Özil had their positions changed, while the defenders and defensive midfielder had a different shape to contend with in front of them.

There is of course the argument that Özil is not restricted to the left side in that structure, and has freedom to wander wherever he so wishes. There is a certain legitimacy in this, in that he is not confined to the wide areas, to play as a traditional winger. But the wide areas are where he was receiving the ball the majority of the time, leaving his extremely one-footed self only a small quadrant of space down the line to attempt to beat his marker or the choice of simply knocking the 5 yard pass inside. A peak Özil sees the passes no one else sees by virtue of astonishing vision and element of surprise with the full game in front of him. Giving him only predictable and easily-blocked passing options only makes him easier to tame.

One of Özil’s best traits as a number 10 is his wide movement, but the 4-1-4-1 completely com-promised that, mostly through how he received the ball. He thrives on receiving the ball to his feet. Making him run onto passes in crowded areas limits the amount of time he has to make his decisions on the ball, and hence does not aid his attempt to pick the right one, or even leads to him holding onto the ball for too long. And when he does spend time in wider areas as a 10, it’s because he has seen some open space, has a runner ahead of him, and a pass to make. In the 4-1-4-1, he has a later arriving central midfielder or two (meaning he has to hold the ball while they catch up, or just pass it backwards), or attempt to find a centre forward who has two centre backs to try and outmanoeuvre by himself while having to move towards Özil so he can make the pass, or a winger who will be somewhere in the other half of the pitch.

The alternative claim is that he, and Ramsey for that matter, were or are doing so much of the basics wrong that the system could not be held accountable. But so much of football, especially when it is played at such a high pace, is immensely instinctive. The struggles with the ‘basics’ came because doing the basic work was so different. If you change a player’s surroundings to something with which they are uncomfortable, including changing their areas of action and passes to find, their style will be have to be different and can understandably suffer, at least at first.

That, in itself, leads to a lack of confidence, which we were seeing with Özil before Saturday, and appear to still be doing so with Ramsey. And with Özil, the fact that he has had barely a third of the pre-season that most of the others have must be noted. Yet even in a setup that does not help them, both were still too important to drop, and not having them would make Arsenal a worse team. With regard to Özil, as long as Arsenal are not being completely flattened, he will make at least some chances, form and position regardless – even if they are not the chances which make the goals, they matter. No one who could have come in from the rest of the squad would be capable of doing better for the team, even though Özil could have been seen to be having difficulties.

Özil on the wing can work as a potential secondary tactic, but it needs two strikers; or at least one striker and an attacking midfielder stationed high up with a more centralised opposite winger, so there are runners and passing options both in the channel ahead of him and in the central pathways. Having him 10 yards from the penalty area, waiting for the central runners to arrive and hence giving the opposition’s defensive unit time to regroup and stack players behind the ball is helpful for no one but the opposition.

More than anyone else in Arsenal’s team, Özil warrants a system built for him. And on top of that, this set of players would be well-suited to an Özil-centred setup to get the best out of all of them, too. The 4-2-3-1 needed no re-adaptation process. The 4-1-4-1 was mostly bailed out by individual performances, if at all. With Jack Wilshere, it is arguable that they had been because he had a formation better suited for him. But as encouraging as his performance against Manchester City was, and how talented he is, it simply does not make sense to reduce the rest of the team to lesser than the sum of its parts purely so Wilshere can do well, rather than doing more to get him to adapt to the one that helps everyone.

Getting the best out of the individuals is second in importance to getting the best from the team as a whole. In this instance, the former leads to the latter, and it applies most to Özil and Ramsey. 4-2-3-1 may not solve every problem at the club, but at least it is a setup that would, and has, got the best from its contributors, and from there allow this Arsenal to keep building on the strengths that brought silver-standard success back to the club.

Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review

Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review

A Great British morning to you all. For as the sun rose over misty loch and dewy dale, these kingdoms are well and truly united once more. By an overwhelming majority of 54% to 46%, Scotland has voted to stay under the yoke of the British Empire. This was the correct decision; we wouldn’t have wanted to send in the troops once more to suppress these primitive notions of ‘independence’. We know what is best for you, and what is best is that the Scots do not descend into the savagery from whence they came before the civilising force of the Empire introduced indoor lavatories, proper cutlery, the wearing of trousers (or ‘troosers’, if you must), Elgar, and not murdering your neighbour over a dispute about how much salt to add to your porridge. Today is like the Highland Clearances all over again. Heady days for Britain!

I am trolling hard here, naturally, and this is complete balderdash.

We should not overlook the contribution that Scottish players have made to The Arsenal over the past 128 years.

Gavin Crawford, 1891 to 1989. John Dick, 1898 to 1912. Duncan McNichol, Jimmy Jackson, Billy Blyth, Jock Robson, Braveheart MacTavish, Donald McTaggart, Kilty McPorridge. Haggis McHaggis. Donald Bagpipes, Alex James, Frank McLintock. Even George Graham. Scotsman all, some of whom are made up, but one of whom I would care to cal ‘foreign’. I am delighted that the great Tony MacAdam, the toast of Morningside, who gave his name to the cocktail ‘The Tarmac’, after which the road-coating was named, does not now come from foreign shores.

However, we must now turn to foreign shores and to the Borussians of Dortmund. Lead by irritatingly efficient and dynamic Stuttgartian Herr Klopp, this team of frustratingly skilful and hardworking German popinjays and footpads soon set about Woolwich, who looked like they had just finished a game of foot-ball rather than started one. To be fair to the chaps, they had been pulled by the nose to the inevitable ruin and disaster of this year’s Champions’ League campaign by an almost completely inept transfer season and an approach to squad depth much akin to that of the eager young curate hoping to encourage the local youth to join his foot-ball team, gingerly inquiring after church if any of the “young fellows” fancied a game and perhaps a short prayer afterwards.

To be in a position where we are blooding a teenage defender, just out of short pants, and in fact in short pants, Master Harry Bell, who no doubt will be very good one day, in a game against the eight-time German champions in the most prestigious club competition in the world. We slipped form Plan ‘A’ to Plan ‘D’ without resorting to ‘B’ or even ‘C’. We have all seen his Pathé newsreels on Mr. Yu’s Tube Briefcase Cinema, with him MPH-ing up the wing like his swingers are on fire and he’s spotted a paddling pool at the other end. Some of us may even have seen him arise from the Family Pew in last season’s League Cup. But the poor little lamb should not have been tasked with stopping these beastly Germans in their tracks.

There is very little to say about this match-up in respect to Woolwich’s involvement as we had so little. Our performance was an offence against God and man. Until we sign enough world class players to mean that this might never happen again we are condemned to nail-biting and painful episodes such as this in which one’s fundament regularly twitches much like the proverbial rabbit’s nose whenever the opponent approaches our goal. A frightful state of affairs. We should also look to a mid-fielder able to fell a shire horse with a single blow. Not that we play actually shire horses apart from a once-yearly visit to the Britannia, but you take my point.

We need a chap who possesses the essential quality of an old-fashioned enforcer – the ability to get absolutely hooched the night before a game, sweat it off under a macintosh on the way to the match and then throw a vicious neck-high tackle at the opponent’s playmaker followed by a shrug at the ref as the victim lies twitching on the turf. Our very own ‘Ritzy Crew’ of Orwell, Cousins et al are wonderful magicians. But sometimes you need a steel-skulled sentinel like Wilf Copping to simply do a number on the opposition.

Or indeed a Donald Bagpipes.