Sunday, December 10, 2023

Tactics Column: The year of Ozil

Without doubt, the standout player of 2015 was Mesut Ozil. It’s hard to underpin any such moment where he came to age so to speak, though the mind harks back to the 2-0 Champions League 2nd leg win against Monaco in March. Actually, it might be better to say the first leg is more pertinent as Arsenal were shell-shocked to a 3-1 defeat at home.

I was there that night at the Emirates, looking down from a neat vantage point in the top corner of the East Stand as Mesut Ozil went over to take a corner-kick. A polite ripple greeted him as he approached the ball and he obliged back with a wave and a smile. He does this in every game, so on it’s own it’s not that significant, but I felt it summed up the air of confidence around the Emirates that night that bordered on complacency.

As we know, The Gunners capitulated, conceding three away goals thus rendering the away leg almost impossible. That didn’t stop them trying and it was Ozil who drove the team on, demanding the ball and playing with a calmness and focus which we hadn’t often seen from him in a red and white shirt.

It’s probably not the pivotal moment which we are looking for but that was the game where I first thought there is more to come from Ozil in terms of being a leader. Indeed, that’s the reason why I feel Ozil has been so good this season; he is in the phase of his career where embracing the extra responsibility has compelled him to deliver. He is now the technical leader, the player who his team-mates know will make something happen when he gets the ball.

They start moving when he has it, so the team’s tactics are geared to get him on the ball as much as possible. That’s created a kind of reliance on him which I feel was conveniently highlighted in the four games during the holiday period, which I will analyse, starting with the 2-0 win over Manchester City and finishing with the 1-0 win against Newcastle United.

Actually, Arsenal’s four performances in that period were wildly different as they used the counter-attack to devastating effect against Manchester City, but were below par in the next game against Southampton, losing 4-0. They improved in the next fixture against Bournemouth, prevailing 2-0 before somehow managing to secure all three points in the final encounter against Newcastle.

Ozil was at his best in the wins against Man City and Bournemouth, delivering the key passes that secured the victories, but he was completely negated in the encounter against Southampton, highlighting the reliance the team has on him. That’s understandable in the absence of Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla, because Ozil is now almost the sole creator, but he’s stepped up and is comfortable with the responsibility.

Indeed, Arsene Wenger stated his importance after the 2-0 win over Bournemouth saying that Ozil is the “focal point… he gives reassurance with his technical security and ability. When we had problems in the first part of the game it went always through him and it gives you confidence and security.”

It was his pass that supposedly sparked The Gunners into life in that game according to Dave Hillier, commentating for Arsenal Player, saying that when Ozil played Theo Walcott through on goal around the 24th minute mark with a chipped pass, it “stirred the team, creating an optimism and belief” in their play. Three minutes later, Ozil produced the cross for the opening goal. In that sense, you could say he’s like Dennis Bergkamp – who Wenger has likened him to – the hub which the players play around.

As such, it’s his contribution just prior to the first goal against Manchester City – though not his assist – which I choose to highlight as summing up his importance to the team.

The timing is significant in this example. Arsenal had just wrestled some impetus back from City after dominating the first 15 minutes, but then ceded the next fifteen. Despite their relative control just before half-time, there was a feeling that Arsenal without Alexis lacked the overall cutting edge to put City to the sword – a feeling that nearly came to a head when Kevin de Bruyne raced through on goal but shot just wide. Seconds later, however, Ozil changed the game.

Before I expand, credit should also go to Laurent Koscielny for the midfield-splitting pass that found Ozil, becauset as we see from the pass map from the first-half, Man City made it terribly difficult for Arsenal to penetrate the space in front of the box. Ozil, though, with the aid of Koscielny, suddenly found space just to the inside-left channel of the penalty box and with time to turn and play the pass, found Walcott. There were still lots to do but the Englishman cut into space and struck the ball into the bottom right corner.

It’s a simple action but at that moment Arsenal were searching for a spark to make something happen. Ozil, trading two or three passes prior, forced the opponents to move left and right before the space suddenly opened up. Koscielny is always looking for him, while the team knows that they can rely on him to find space. And when he gets the ball, they start moving.

It’s noticeable that just before he received the pass; Ozil is motioning to the three strikers ahead to start moving, to make the diagonal run. In the end, it was Walcott who was the recipient of the Ozil assist™. That’s probably one of the reasons why Walcott has played mainly on the left because as we saw in the Bournemouth game, Ozil is best when he plays the ball between the sides of the centre-back and the full-back, and Walcott makes those runs all the time.

However, we saw the other side of the Ozil reliance in the 4-0 defeat to Southampton when the German was marked completely out of the game. In the encounter, the Saints made sure that they had a man around Ozil wherever he went, whilst using two narrow wingers ensured he didn’t get space in his favourite areas. Arsenal’s dependence on the German was summed up in the lead up to the second goal when Walcott played a blind pass into the centre, not computing that Ozil was surrounded by two Southampton players. The Saints pounced on the loose pass and ran down the other end to score.

As mentioned before, what makes Ozil so good is that he is overwhelmingly a team player. As Michael Cox writes for ESPN, there are two ways no.10s interpret this responsibility of being the fulcrum for the team. The first way is shining through their individuality, like Diego Maradona who would inspire the team with mazy dribbles and goalscoring; the second is less fussy, more concerned with using the confines of their creative freedom to make the team tick, and not with personal glory.

Ozil is much more the latter although Wenger is imploring the German to add a ruthless streak to his game. While that might go against his character, it’s in keeping with the modern game where the best players are consistent in making their mark on the game directly. Ozil does that with assists, but with the way he darts into space vertically, behind the defences it’s almost a seamless evolution to add goals too. “I run a lot and if I see a path where I can really counterattack, I go quickly and read the game,” he says.

In that sense, Ozil is also thoroughly modern even if he seems quite classical too. Because, as Cox writes too, the best creative midfielders need to be able to roam laterally, and he does that well also. His main areas of operation are actually closer to the touchline than at the central edge of the box, using his team-mates runs to double-up and create the overloads so crucial to Arsenal’s game. He did just that to set up Walcott for Arsenal’s first goal against Manchester City and then fed Olivier Giroud for the second. Arsenal held on for the win late on but it was Ozil’s mastery that set up the victory.

In the game against Bournemouth, you could see Ozil’s predilection to the flanks in the way he sought to inspire the team, taking it almost upon himself to stay on the right at times and feed balls to the back and near post for Walcott’s runs. Indeed, he does this quite frequently; at the start of last year, we were talking about how unsuited he is to the wide role (even though he’s actually done very well there when he’s played), but often you will see him make the decision himself to move wide, where there’s more space, to affect the game.

Overall, the win over Bournemouth was fairly rudimentary with Arsenal dominating without being outstanding. They had to see out some early pressure from the away side but once Ozil got on the ball, he exuded clarity to Arsenal’s play. He crossed for Gabriel’s headed goal but the best pass of the game actually came from Giroud, flicking the ball back to Ozil to finish and seal the win. Ozil’s genius was illustrated prior to the goal however; when he played the first pass to Giroud, four players converged on him but he still managed to choose the right pass. Giroud’s flick bypassed the whole defence and the rest was elementary.

Ozil’s performances against Southampton and Newcastle were completely different as both sides sought to clog the centre, and by playing narrow wingers, could deny him from influencing in his favoured areas in the half-spaces. As such, the absences of Cazorla and Alexis, in particular, really told as the reliance on Ozil to create became too much.

Alexis Sanchez is a big miss as he brings balance to Arsenal in two ways, by pushing opponents back and opening space in front, and by being a creator himself. Joel Campbell has come into the side and has tried to fill the void left, first by Ramsey and now Alexis. He had a bad game at St. Mary’s, as did the whole frontline who looked disconnected from the rest of the team. He was far better when he came on against Newcastle and showed, at the moment, he is the best option on the right flank when Alexis returns.

Thus far without the Chilean, Arsenal have looked good in quick, devastating bursts, using possession intermittently. Even the 3-0 win over Aston Villa featured this type of performance without the team needing to be too fluid. The encounter with Southampton was different because Arsenal needed to be proactive quite early on after falling a goal behind, but never had the tools to truly threaten.

Too much relied, of course, on Ozil but also his interchange with Ramsey who would push out from the midfield. Without the two finding each other, the three striker formation that had worked really well prior proved inadequate and the Gunners neither had the options on the bench to change things up. With each attack that broke down, Arsenal were increasingly at threat from the counter-attack which they defended miserably. Koscielny was erratic, while Flamini’s deep positioning never became a factor because whenever Arsenal lost the ball, he was too far away. He never made the system a back three which might have helped guard against the two strikers.

In possession, he was given a key role, instructed to pick up the ball from the centre-backs which was a bit strange because Coquelin never did that – that job was up to Cazorla if the opponents pressed. Instead, Ramsey pushed up the pitch in an attempt to ward off the Southampton press which never relented. They simply stopped the flow getting to him in good areas. Thus he was forced to move into channels – which happened to create Arsenal’s best moments but they were few are far between if there wasn’t anyone to find him.

After the game, Wenger wasn’t unduly worried, but it did signal some weaknesses in the team going forward which haven’t been shown-up because Arsenal have generally protected the 0-0 so well. With that platform, the team then could soak up pressure and use the direct weapons that they’ve added to pick off teams. It’s likely that that could have been the case had Arsenal defended better Southampton’s opening goal, but they dropped off too deep to allow the wonder striker from Martina. After that, Southampton were able to gain more confidence to suppress Arsenal’s best qualities, and expose their worst flaws.

Hopefully, it’s a turning point because while transitions are key, building up play is just as important. Too much relies on Ozil getting on the ball, while Ramsey’s role as an attacking midfielder can see him disconnected from the back four when the team is trying to move forward. The pass network map from the Newcastle win shows just how much Ramsey tries to push up out of the line to create and while that has evolved Arsenal’s play somewhat, in matches such as Southampton and Newcastle, that’s a lot to ask. He needs to start taking more responsibility in the first-phase, and if the reported signing of Mohamed El-Neney is true, that could liberate him somewhat.

Ramsey’s stamina is fantastic and though he wasn’t quite such an influence in the four-game holiday period, the way he abandons the shape, then drops back in stood out. I use the example below, in a defensive scenario, to highlight how important his hustle is, then the speed at which he gets back if he doesn’t get the ball.

Actually, organisation in the defensive phase was a huge problem for Arsenal against Newcastle as they were put under pressure from The Magpies in large swathes of the game. Too much relies on the recovery speed and anticipation of the back four, while Petr Cech kept Arsenal in the game with a couple of great stops.

Ozil has a key role in this part of Arsenal’s game by forming the first line of press and as such perhaps he’s guilty of not doing enough. That’s one criticism you might have of Mesut Ozil; he’s overwhelmingly a team player but perhaps he could be liberated a bit more by affording him a little less responsibility in the defensive phase.

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