In order to fully understand how painful it is, as an Arsenal supporter, to put forth this opinion one must first remember what it felt like on September 2, 2013. The dark days were over. Gooners were no longer going to have to dread the summer months and January when the transfer window opened. We weren’t going to have to fall in love with a new future, only to see its destiny fulfilled in the wrong shade of red. In any shade of blue, or white. No, the potential wouldn’t just bud in London Colney; we could now afford to let it blossom. The decade long pub stool caveat, “just you wait until we have money to spend again!” was finally coming to end. We got Ozil. It meant the future was now for Arsenal.
If one were to start building the perfect #10, the central playmaker and orchestrator of attacks, there are a lot worse templates to start with than Mesut Ozil. With vision and intelligence in so much abundance that only the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Juan Roman Riquelme and footballers of that level could match in their day. When on song and brimmed with confidence, Ozil positively glides around with the ball at his feet, every touch, flick, chop and pass perfectly weighted and spun in just the right direction so that it can be picked up in stride. Stone footed squad players receive and turn with his passes as if they have morphed into Jack Wilshere, who, I am sure some may forget, has just about the smoothest ball reception technique this side of the Nou Camp. No look passes follow, with slick footwork leaving many prideful defenders scratching their heads. As a classic #10, perhaps the only gap in his production has been in front of goal.
This flaw aside though, it could not often be argued that there is a better pure #10 operating in world football at the moment, nor one whose skills align so perfectly with the requirements of the position. But there is something else that makes Ozil so unique. Unlike many of the other players that possess some or most of the same skills as he, almost none of them are as equally UNSUITED to any other position as he. He possesses neither the defensive nous nor the engine to play further back in a central midfield role. He doesn’t have the turn of pace or defensive mind frame to play on the wing, though that was where he started upon arriving in London in order to keep him out of the physical fray until he adapted to the league. He also doesn’t have the killer instinct and explosive shot of an out and out striker.
So we have an incredibly skilled, but totally tactically inflexible genius here. So what does this mean for Arsenal? Quite a lot more than it may initially seem, actually.
To start, with Ozil on the pitch, 4-2-3-1 IS the formation Arsenal MUST play. “But wait!” you may cry, “that is Wenger’s preferred formation, even without Ozil!” and you would be correct. Even in the days of the Invincibles, which was almost universally described as a 4-4-2, was basically a staggered 4-2-3-1. One of the main reasons why it is Wenger’s formation of choice is the flexibility it allows. You can show a 4-4-1-1 defensively, or withdraw the support striker into the midfield and push the wingers forward and show a 3 man press. Flip the triangle in the midfield to create a single pivot in order to control the ball even more in the center of the park. The wingers can play like a classic British flag to flag crosser or invert to make dynamic runs into the box. For a manager who loves his players to express themselves on the pitch, it is a dream formation. When Wenger arrived in England, 4-4-2 was nearly the exclusive norm. Freed from the traditional constraints of the formation, The Arsenal players took the league by storm, flowing in and out of danger areas, swapping positions and seeming to create numerical advantages in defence, midfield and attack all at once.
It must be said that many of these concepts are still very much a part of what Arsenal do, but these days appear much less potent and revolutionary than in those halcyon days at the turn of the century. One of the main reasons why is that much of that flexibility is undone by Ozil being on the pitch.
Let’s start with when Arsenal are on the attack. Arsenal love to swap positions in attack, and in the final third, that works. Ozil can cross, make slippery runs in and out of danger areas, and can spot the final ball like few can. But this only works against a team that neither possess an offensive threat, nor the physical commitment to closing down the space on Arsenal’s quicker, less robust attackers. Even in this, one of the more favorable positions to have Ozil on the pitch, he can be neutralized by constant physical confrontation. This goes back to the trend toward 4-2-3-1 across the entire Premier League, because players sitting in behind the striker in Ozil’s role are usually directly opposed to two bruising and tactically intelligent defensive midfielders. This leaves little space for even the most incisive and physically gifted players of the position, let alone one of his decidedly slight build and languid approach.
When Arsenal play out from the back, or try to build attacks through the midfield, this effect can be felt as well, in particular against the elite sides that press their defence high up the pitch. Teams like Tottenham, Manchester City, and most recently (and embarrassingly) Bayern Munich can seem to be playing with an extra man in midfield against Arsenal. This is because Ozil does not play like a traditional midfielder in his own end. When Arsenal have the ball, he pushes forward almost as a support striker. This can leave a lot of space for the opposition to break up the play as the ball is moved from the base of the midfield forward.
Overall, it can certainly be argued that offensively, Ozil is very much a positive player for Arsenal. In most matches, it doesn’t matter that the team cannot slot into a two striker formation or counter attacking shape. He possesses that magic that fellow players can see and respect. Unfortunately, especially against the fellow members of the “big 6”, Arsenal do not have the ball 75% of the time. And it is on defence where the chaos is most apparent.
As I wrote recently in a piece on Assistant Manager Steve Bould, Ozil’s lack of defensive contribution dictates a certain amount of shuffling on defence for the Gunners. When playing compact and looking to spring counter attacks, Arsenal are forced into either a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-5-1 with Ozil playing the furthest (with Giroud at striker, but defending deeper than Ozil) or second furthest (with Alexis playing centrally). This means that against teams that play a 4-3-3 attack in numbers, one of Arsenal’s wide players, usually Iwobi from the left, is forced to either tuck inside to even the numbers in midfield, or cover out wide. In either instance, it usually leads to a numerical advantage on attack for the opposition. This is why so many goals have been conceded to late runners that haven’t been picked up or recognized in time by retreating Arsenal midfielders.
And sadly, when Arsenal try and press (that is what is supposed to be happening when you see Alexis start waving at teammates like crazy and tearing off in pursuit of the ball), it gets even worse. Typically, the best pressing teams haven three forward attackers because it allows angles and passing triangles to be closed down most efficiently, and it also frees up the midfielders to contain the secondary passing lanes. However, Arsenal cannot do this. Ozil does NOT play enough defense to sprint after the ball or the most likely outlet man. He doesn’t have the pace or the motor. He also cannot be one of the three central midfielders in that scenario either. If the press is bypassed, Arsenal will be horribly overrun in midfield with just him in support of the two defensive midfielders. This means a defense stretched thin, and also why Arsenal’s great surprise for the rematch against Chelsea, coming out in a 4-3-3, backfired as it did.
The problem also lies in games such as Arsenal’s FA Cup clash against Southampton. The team we saw that night, with the midfield full of hyphens and young players, and no Sanchez or Ozil. The team was electric that night with the pace of the three attackers, who were able to push further forward knowing there were at least three defensively adequate midfielders to cover their tracks. The pace, the precision, the ball movement. It was the kind of emphatic display of quality that looked every bit like a talented bunch of young lads that had played together for years. There was excitement and energy that night, the sort that seems to be lacking in some of the first team at present.
I love Mesut Ozil the player. I love how he continued to try for 90 minutes against Bayern when even Alexis looked ready to quit. It therefore pains me to say that the best way forward for Arsenal Football Club may just be to cut ties with their mercurial genius, and sell him this summer. The money raised could certainly be used to invest in a younger and more versatile attacker that perhaps fits Arsene Wenger’s scheme even more than Ozil. It is entirely probable that Arsenal will lose some of its flair in the attacking third if he is sold. Given the way the league has gone, and the recent success of a more pragmatic breed of manager (Mourinho, Conte, Simeone et al), Wenger may need to find the perfect replacement for his perfect Number 10 if he is to have his story book ending in red and white.