Tim Stillman column Arseblog

There are few folk heroes more celebrated in football history than the will o’ the wisp number 10. We are familiar with the well-worn stereotype by now. Socks rolled down, shorts pristinely clean well into the final stages of a game, fans and managers alike tolerate their unwillingness to muck in and track back in exchange for that one waft of the boot that unlocks the opposition defence. From Ronaldinho to Riquelme; we have all revered, adored and cursed the free-wheeling playmaker.

We appear to have entered an era of ultra-tactical sophistication. Few top clubs in Europe operate with this kind of maverick, free to roam the corridors of the pitch in pursuit of that one snatch of space that will allow them to produce momentary, yet significant magic. This process probably started when the ‘Guardiolasation’ of football made a midfield trio necessary, all but killing off the pure penalty box striker. Centre forwards have had their job descriptions broadened in the last decade and slowly this is happening to the game’s enganches too.

In 2017, Mesut Özil is one of the few ‘pure’ number 10s left in Europe. For all of his undoubted talent, the Gunners do pay something of a tariff by playing the German in a totally free role. His interpretation of space and end product make it a profitable trade-off for Arsene Wenger, but for games away from home at title rivals, the levy is a little higher. Özil does not really contribute defensively, which leaves Arsenal’s midfield duo short-handed against the majority of teams that adopt midfield triangles.

In the second half at Manchester City in December, Guardiola’s side strangled the Gunners with a high octane pressing game that neutered Mesut’s influence in an attacking sense and his lack of defensive output placed an extra burden on an already overworked midfield. A clip of him ambling through the midfield went viral on twitter in the immediate aftermath of the match. The criticism that emanated from that video was harsh. It was obvious to any observer of the entire 90 minutes that Wenger had instructed his team to deliberately sit off of City.

But it does rather highlight the issue that Özil’s presence can create against opponents of this ilk when Arsenal might not expect their usual lion’s share of possession. So the question is whether the German’s rather feeble showings against Everton, City and Chelsea demonstrate why he is something of a relic as a ‘pure number 10.’ It is becoming a noggin scratcher for Arsene Wenger, with many potential up and down sides. The team would probably best be set up in more of a 4-3-3 shape with a tight, interwoven network of central midfielders.

Indeed, we saw such a unit in operation at Southampton with the triple double barrelled midfield. Chamberlain and Rene Adelaide swapped the number 8 role at will, their mobility and energy meaning they could share attacking and defensive responsibilities. The Gunners struggled against Paris Saint Germain’s flying V of central midfielders during both Champions League encounters, as the Parisian trio stayed close together and progressed the ball upfield in a tight weave.

In a nutshell, Özil’s greatest strength is his ability to find space because he often runs away from play, but that in turn leaves holes for opponents. Most managers won’t tolerate the tactical looseness a roaming number 10 will give them, but most managers don’t have a number 10 as good as Mesut Özil at their disposal. There is a neat narrative at play too. Who else but Arsene Wenger, elite management’s last surviving aesthete, would be prepared to resist pragmatic convention and allow a player like Mesut license to glide?

Can Arsenal afford to make that downpayment in big away games? Yet if they want to win, can Wenger afford to push one of his most effective players out onto the flank, where he is likely to be less effective? There is a political element to this chin scratcher too. Playing in a free role means a lot to Özil. His ‘people’ made a big song and dance of Wenger’s apparent promise to grant him that freedom indefinitely during the summer of 2015, following a season in which Mesut had occasionally been moved to the flank in a 4-3-3.

In a recent interview with Kicker magazine, the German caused a slight frisson by implying that his Gunners future is tied to Wenger’s. There is a relentless obsession with the tedious ‘Wenger debate’ which frames Arsenal discourse indefinitely so the interview was discussed within that context. But it was the latter part of Özil’s interview that was most revealing. “I enjoy being at the club especially because Wenger trusts me a lot and allows me to play with a good amount of freedom on the pitch.”

That’s the Kicker, as it were. Arsene is trying to convince his record signing to pen a new deal and playing in a free role is a huge consideration for the player. To move him out to the flank to create an extra body in midfield would amount to a slight loss of trust. Wenger is a guy that tends to back the players he likes, so I would be very surprised if he did not ultimately play his number 11 in his usual role on an ongoing basis. But moving him to the left or the right of the front 3 might provide the team with interesting attacking solutions.

Particularly if Wenger persists with Alexis as a false 9, which naturally creates a lot of fluidity in the Gunners’ attack. Özil made a lot of goalscoring hay earlier in the season, by darting into the positions that Alexis vacates. Potentially, the two could still play quite close together and the German could still capitalise on this space, albeit from a wider vantage point. Were Aaron Ramsey to form part of a slightly tighter midfield trio, he too could finally carve out his Arsenal niche, freer to burst forward without abandoning a solitary midfield partner.

That said, Mesut’s defensive deficit would not be removed by moving him into a wider role, the extra workload currently felt by the central midfield, would just transfer to one of the full-backs. Antonio Conte’s adoption of wing backs expertly removed defensive responsibility away from Eden Hazard. The Belgian has an entirely free role, he lingers on the precipice of the play when the Blues are defending, but has license to pick the ball up close to the halfway line and run with it.

Özil does something a little similar late on in games that the Gunners are winning. He tends to drift to a slightly wider position and wait for the ball to break. Like I said, he gravitates to where the space is. Obviously Mesut is not the dribbler that Hazard is, so the two solutions are not entirely analogous. What is clear is that Conte has struck a balance with his greatest playmaker that Wenger is still searching for. Indeed, he is still searching for it with a few players. Pochettino has found a way of accommodating Delle Alli and Christian Eriksen into his well-coached system, but neither quite have the off ball liberty that Özil has.

Arsene has yet to find a universally suitable system for his players and consequently, individuals can suffer- especially when their form and confidence is low, as Mesut’s appears to be at the moment. We have entered the era of the ‘super coach’ at the elite level in Europe. Minute details are micro managed and the system is king. As such, the number 10 with the pure free role is going the same way as the penalty box striker and the dodo. Football is transient and that may not be the case in perpetuity, but it is difficult not to conclude that Mesut Özil may be the last of a dying breed.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto 


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