The standoff between Unai Emery and Mesut Özil was the contretemps that threatened to define Unai Emery’s Arsenal reign until Granit Xhaka’s ‘are you not entertained?!’ skit on the Emirates turf on Sunday afternoon. In the off-pitch spin war, conducted on social media and in the sports pages, Emery is just not armed to take on one of contemporary football’s slickest PR operations. Emery is not a gifted communicator and is not renowned for his man-management skills either.
Emery has been criticised for his “hokey cokey” approach to Mesut Özil’s inclusion in the team. In fairness, the line seems to be that if the player works hard in training, he will be included in the squad and if he doesn’t, he won’t. That can be a moveable feast according to the player’s efforts at London Colney. A consistent line isn’t always met with consistent results.
That said, there does also seem to be inconsistency in the way Emery treats his players. He has tolerated his captain’s flaws and transgressions with far greater patience than he has his highest paid player. Nevertheless, while Arsenal fail to offer convincing performances, Özil’s PR war is being fought for him. There is no better footballer on earth than the one who is not playing while the team suffers.
How much of a panacea would the German be for the Gunners’ ills on the pitch, away from the digital space where the debate rages? He certainly made a convincing case at Anfield on Wednesday. The gorgeous assist for Maitland-Niles apart, he had a significant hand in both of Martinelli’s goals and in Lucas Torreira’s, providing a significant pass in the moves that led to both goals.
Anfield saw Özil at his best, moving through space like a figure skater, finding nooks and crannies and pushing the ball along the turf like a hockey puck. His play was full of those suggestive, almost flirty nudges and flicks that always seem to find their target. He has a sixth sense for making the right decision in the final third. This is Good Özil and if we saw this in near enough every game, there would be no issue.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the greater freedom and the more balanced partnerships in the “cup team”, who have meted out far more fluent, entertaining football than their senior counterparts this season. During a barmy 5-5 draw where both teams consigned defending and structure to the dustbin, Özil was majestic. The question now is whether he can revive the ailing fortunes of “the first team” against opponents who won’t treat the fixture as an afterthought.
It’s hard to imagine that the team would be less fluent with Özil’s presence, especially as they continue to have issues linking their midfield to their attack. Politically, Emery’s decision to isolate the player is difficult to calculate because we just don’t know what has been happening at London Colney. A coach should be within his rights to punish intransigence from players, but we just don’t know the extent of Mesut’s supposed lethargy.
Players’ training data is posted in the London Colney gym for all to see and if Özil’s is notably behind his teammates, then it makes sense for punitive measures to be taken. I don’t think anyone, least of all Emery, is genuinely suggesting that Mesut rebrand himself as his good friend Mathieu Flamini and become an ankle biting midfield warrior, but there are still red lines to be observed.
Mesut may be considered something of a relic now- a luxury playmaker in a league drunk on the charms of the high press- but he is still, almost certainly, the most talented player in the squad, even if his performances have been inconsistent for some time now. As recently as August, his status as an unused substitute in the North London derby was scarcely questioned because his stock had fallen so far. As the team has suffered and his fallout with Emery has grown uglier, his cache has grown again.
Arsenal struggle to create a high volume of shots on the opponents’ goal, especially away from home. Last Monday at Sheffield United, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang chased shadows and didn’t manage to touch the ball in the Blades area despite the fact that Arsenal were chasing the game for over an hour. He touched the ball in the penalty area only twice against Crystal Palace on Sunday, where the Gunners created only through set pieces.
Bukayo Saka ended the defeat at Bramall Lane playing the number 10 role favoured by Özil, it stands to reason that a 31-year old World Cup winner might have better fortune there. Emery seems to have appreciated that Dani Ceballos isn’t really a number 10 and instead played him on the left of a slightly lopsided 4-4-2 against Crystal Palace- yet that didn’t grease Arsenal’s creative wheel any.
On the face of it, the reintroduction of Özil seems to be a no-brainer. Arsenal have rarely operated any sort of high press during this season, making Mesut’s exclusion even more tactically analogous. However, Özil produced only 2 assists in 20 starts last season. Everyone that has tried to play the number 10 role under Unai Emery has struggled to some degree. Joe Willock has been hooked at half-time in consecutive matches recently.
At the beginning of Emery’s reign, he played Aaron Ramsey at number 10 in a 4231, but it didn’t work and Ramsey soon spent some time out of the team. Dani Ceballos’ performances have been fitful because he is not really a 10, he prefers to drift towards the left flank, while Özil has not looked himself in his appearances under Emery because the coach prefers to attack through wide spaces. In Emery’s systems, number 10s are virtually low-touch decoys so that the ball can be shuffled wide.
Siri, show me Emeryball pic.twitter.com/LJO1k2vzy4
— YankeeGunner (@YankeeGunner) September 30, 2019
This, at least partially explains, why Özil has struggled to influence games under Emery. He likes to hide himself from the opposition by taking up wide positions, but as a means to eventually progressing the ball vertically. There has been a fundamental clash between how Unai Emery wants to structure his attacks and what Mesut Özil offers.
Then again, the German played well against Watford, producing a key pass for full-back Ainsley Maitland-Niles to tee up Pierre Emerick Aubameyang during a rare burst of fluent Arsenal football. He has shown a penchant for finding onrushing full-backs at the by-line, who can forget this wonderful slide-rule pass to Hector Bellerin, who subsequently teed Aubameyang up for an open goal against Leicester last season? He produced something similar at home to Burnley last season so that Sead Kolasinac could set up Aubameyang.
If Emery considers his full-backs as a significant part of his team’s creative arsenal, there are few players better equipped to find them than the German. He had also created more chances than any of his teammates in the 5-0 thrashing of Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup before he was unceremoniously substituted, in what felt like a pointed, punitive gesture from the coach. Özil has played in three games this season now and he has performed well in each of them.
His assist data might never reach the heady heights of 2015-16, but if Emery wants to get his wide players to the by-line and into the avenue of opportunity, there are few better at finding those players. If anything, Mesut can play a valuable “pre-assist” role, but he has to take the responsibility to make that happen and make it happen regularly too, because there is space for him in an Unai Emery team. He might not represent the future, but at the moment, he doesn’t need to.