Mesut Özil is an exceptional footballer, capable doing things with a football that most can hardly dream of. One of the most gifted footballers of his generation, Özil has been named Germany’s Player of the Year on five occasions in a glittering career.
Despite Özil’s obvious talent, his career appears to be at a crossroads at the age of just 28. The German’s poor form has led to speculation that his time at Arsenal could be up in the summer. If Özil departs the Emirates this summer, he will be remembered for some truly incredible moments in an Arsenal shirt but also for his lack of consistency in some of Arsenal’s biggest matches.
Part of what makes Özil such an enigma is even with his ability and great football brain; he appears unable to play anywhere but as a traditional number 10. In the past nine seasons, Özil has played almost exclusively as the number 10 in a 4-2-3-1, dating back to his time at Werder Bremen. Short spells out wide with Germany and Arsenal brought little success and left Özil looking frustrated and unable to impact the game to his usual level.
Unfortunately for Özil, the number 10 role appears to going out of style with more and more top European clubs opting for a more balanced three-man midfield. Looking at the teams currently in the top four in the big five European leagues, only four regularly play with a number 10. These clubs, Roma, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Tottenham, use vastly different players than Özil. Roma’s Radja Nainggolan is a natural central midfielder whose game is based on power and stamina while Paulo Dybala, Thomas Müller and Dele Alli are more second strikers who focus more on scoring than creating goals. Players with similar skillsets to Özil have adapted to fit into different roles. The likes of Philippe Coutinho, Julian Draxler, Javier Pastore and Bernardo Silva have become effective wingers for their respective clubs while others like Samir Nasri, Adam Lallana, Toni Kroos and Marek Hamšík have successfully moved into deeper midfield roles.
Can Özil adapt to a new role?
If Arsenal do move away from a 4-2-3-1, a switch to 4-3-3 seems most likely. Most top clubs that employ a three-man midfield employ a holding midfielder, a box-to-box midfielder and a creative midfielder. (Think Barcelona: Busquets – HM, Rakitić – B2B, Iniesta – Creator) Of these three positions, the more advanced creative position clearly fits Özil best. Özil’s passing and creativity are unquestioned but he will have to add more to the defensive side of his game if he is to make this transition. Özil, although effective in the current Arsenal team as a high-presser, averages less than one tackle and less than one interception per game in the Premier League this season. In a deeper role, it is likely Özil’s defensive stats will likely improve but at what cost to his attacking numbers? Will he be able to produce the same amount of key passes, assists and goals? The answer to these questions are impossible to give unless Özil gets game time in this role.
If Arsenal feel Özil cannot adapt to a deeper, slightly more defensive game, moving him on this summer may be the right move. Arsenal has several midfielders who would probably benefit a great deal from playing in a three-man midfield with clearly defined roles including Aaron Ramsey, Granit Xhaka and Jack Wilshere.
The 4-2-3-1 formation is a system that has been so widely used in the 2010s that most top clubs have found ways to defeat teams lining up in it. Just look at Arsenal’s record in the Champions League knockout stages in recent seasons. If Arsenal are to progress as a club, a change in formation may be essential to kick start their progression. Unfortunately, this may mean a future without one of their best players, assist-king, Mesut Özil.