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Mesut Özil

Arsenal, 2013-Present

If Arsenal and their manager Unai Emery are to recover from an uncertain start to the season, their recent 5-5 draw at Liverpool in the League Cup – they eventually lost on penalties – demonstrated that the out-of-favour Mesut Özil may provide them with so many of the qualities they need. A team that is lacking in leadership and creativity, particularly after the departure of Aaron Ramsey to Juventus, can potentially be strengthened by a player who has won both La Liga and the World Cup in his career.

Özil created one goal for Ainsley Maitland-Niles at Anfield, and set up the strike from Bukayo Saka that led to Lucas Torreira’s initial equaliser. The obvious question is how much more effective Emery’s team could be with him feeding a potent front three of Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé, who is still acclimatising to life in the Premier League. Concerns surrounding Granit Xhaka’s future as captain may have distracted from the wider debate surrounding Özil, but with Emery under greater pressure than at any other point since replacing Arsène Wenger, it may even be his use of the German midfielder that makes or breaks his own future in the Premier League.

Tactical analysis
Emery has so far used four different formations throughout 2019/20. He has largely preferred a 4-2-3-1 built around the creative potential of a number 10 – a role that also features in the four-diamond-two he has also used.

Both are systems to which the talented Özil seems ideally suited, but the extent to which he has so often been overlooked has contributed to Arsenal instead having a rigid central midfield. Defensive-minded players are filling creative pockets on the pitch, particularly when Emery employs a 4-3-3 shape.

Özil’s greatest asset has long been his movement in attacking phases; he occupies spaces between the lines, and effectively avoids pressure as he receives possession in a way only a world-class footballers can. His awareness of his surroundings also allows him to take his first touch forward.

When he assumes advanced positions, Özil’s extraordinary ability – his disguise, craft and composure in possession – creates for his teammates. The disguise he applies to his passes often deceives defenders, ensuring increased time and space for the receiver; his passing technique with his left foot, and the off-the-ball movements that make him so difficult to mark, similarly lead to him providing numerous goalscoring chances (above) and registering regular assists. Of those players still playing in the Premier League, only David Silva, James Milner, Ashley Young, Christian Eriksen, Kevin De Bruyne and Leighton Baines have more than the 52 Özil has managed in six years at Arsenal.

Özil changes his body shape after receiving to beat opponents and, though not a direct runner when carrying possession, he can manipulate the ball (below), even when not forward-facing, to find more advanced or direct teammates. During his spell at Real Madrid, that very trait led to regular and fast transitions led by Cristiano Ronaldo, Ángel Di Maria and Karim Benzema.

Role at Arsenal
Arsenal no longer have a player who offers the qualities Olivier Giroud once did on the top line, but those who now lead the line are explosive in their movements. Özil drifting towards the right (below) can potentially offer Pépé an increased variety of shorter passing combinations, including inside; with the restored Hector Bellerin always looking to overlap from right-back, this means they wouldn’t sacrifice the width needed to attack around opposing blocks.

Even if that risks reducing the regularity of Pépé’s dribbles, the combinations Özil can offer to more direct runners is capable of compensating; Lacazette’s support can further those options through rotations, while Aubameyang and new arrival Kieran Tierney attack from the left. Özil vacating spaces in central areas would also invite Lacazette to withdraw away from central defenders, from where he offers such effective play between both penalty areas, and Aubameyang to continue to run diagonally across defences while attempting to penetrate – not least with Özil’s ability to break lines via his angles of delivery from the right.

A long-term complaint about Özil focuses on his defensive contributions – or, perhaps more accurately, his perceived lack thereof. From his favoured role as the number 10 in a 4-2-3-1, Arsenal can drop into a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1. Both defensive formations encourage him to remain high, however, in a position to link transitions into runners, or to receive under less pressure in the event of regains.

If the threat he poses from within those areas justifies him remaining further forward, he does represent a potential weakness when withdrawing from the final third. When losing possession in deeper territory – where he drops either to link defence to attack or to escape being double-marked – he doesn’t often appear to react with the kind of desire the Premier League is increaasingly used to seeing in the age of the counter-press.

Emery doesn’t necessarily demand the consistent counter-press employed by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City or Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool, but even then Özil makes too little effort to either recover the ball (above) or delay an opposing attack – even when positioned alongside a double pivot. That Arsenal’s other attackers show limited defensive awareness only serves to underline Özil’s apparent unwillingness to contribute.

If his manager can inspire that to change, he will be in possession of an even better player. But even if that remains unlikely, Özil’s quality in possession is something Emery cannot afford to sacrifice – particularly considering the potential of his favoured front three, and that the club’s priority is to secure a return to the Champions League.

Mesut Özil

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