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.