For most of his time in England, Mesut Özil has been shielded from detractors by stats. Loads and loads of numbers and percentages and ratios ricocheting any negativity sent from those who can’t grasp his intricate playing style, and the rest of that racket. There’s been one that was popular on Twitter timelines this weekend: the German has the best assist-to-minutes ratio in the Premier League’s history.
That is pretty damn impressive considering how ambivalent people are towards him. But now he doesn’t need the numbers to protect his game. Özil is enjoying a prolonged purple patch, turning out excellent performance after excellent performance. Quite clearly being Arsenal’s most consistent player and considering where they are sat on the table, calls for him as the league’s best player can’t be met with contempt.
His weekly masterclasses are an extension of Arsenal’s current fortunes. Even with a midweek slap in the face from Sheffield Wednesday, the Gunners have been magnificent – for the most part – this season. Arsenal have learned to sail in heavy winds, the ship no longer rocks as much in the strong gusts.
A combination of maturation, the experience of winning and a tenacious camaraderie have lead Arsenal to this position. A position where they have an unwavering belief in their system and their manager that what they are doing is the right thing. It’s not a foolhardy approach, it’s one they can all understand. The Bayern game made this clear.
There was an obvious outline of how to play that night and Arsenal stuck to it. No matter how many one-on-ones they lost on the wings, the willingness to allow Alonso so much time and seeing counters collapse, Arsenal’s approach remained the same. They rode their luck a huge amount and tested Neuer’s resolve until their system prevailed and they got the break through.
This reassurance from a team with a normally quite frail mentality shows a big step to overcoming tiresome recurrences. It’s a comfortable environment for the team to play in and it’s helped polish their new weapon – the counter-attack. Arsenal have previously shown promise with this system but sometimes couldn’t sustain the intensity or pressure. Wiser and more experienced in the dark art of playing conservatively, Ozil has been integral to this implementation.
Counter-attacking in its nature allows gives more space to attack in, and that’s exactly what Özil’s relationship with Arsenal’s speed merchants – Theo and Alexis – is built on. But he doesn’t just orchestrate breaks, he can lead them. The evasive German runs a lot – whether he’s exploring the creative corridor from wing to wing, or darting into the box, it’s all purposeful. As he showed this weekend, making a dummy run into the box, opening space for Giroud who should have scored.
Ramsey, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain are all out; the three runners Özil could rely on to get beyond him. Giroud doesn’t provide that option but Özil creates space with the Frenchman through clipped balls for knock-ons and pulling defenders out of place. He’s allowed all this because finally he works perfectly in this team now and that brings creative freedom. Arsenal’s third versus Swansea this weekend started with Özil collecting a ball from Cazorla, carrying the play to the right. For lack of options, the German pivoted and forced the play wide left, he popped up widest in space and slipped the ball across the box for Campbell to convert.
It all happened because Özil decided that was the direction he should take the play through calculated judgement. This imperious influence has guided Arsenal through many games this season. At a time when Alexis can be marked out of games, Giroud a fickle figure and Campbell unconvincing, there’s a big attacking burden on Mesut.