Arsenal fan John Guillem discusses the virtues of Mesut Özil, and how he slots into Arsene Wenger’s side…
I won’t say much about the transfer itself. Not only is it a bit late by now to be doing so, but we’ve had our earlobes strained unto tedium by endless responses and counter-responses. However, I will say that part of the motivation for this piece has been pique at the quasi-hysterical reaction by the Arsenal fanbase – fair enough, on one level, but definitely annoying as all hell, particularly for a habitually frigid fan such as myself. So as to investigate the parameters of my own excitement (is it the head or the loins talking?), I’ve dredged out some problems raised by Mesut’s arrival in North London (that are perhaps being overlooked), scum emerging from the mire below.
I don’t buy any of the crap we’ve all read about Özil being a new blade purchased when what was really needed was a shield or perhaps some pepper spray or whatever. I would say that on paper he’s exactly what Arsenal needed most. Certainly, the squad lacks depth in the striking positions (although they do now have Thor himself returned to Arsegard), but it’s becoming increasingly clear to non-Gooners that Giroud can finish and contribute to buildup with great effectiveness. Similarly, people bleating about signing a physical dm/box-to-boxer were missing the point: for the way Arsenal play, Arteta is excellent for the holding role, and with Ramsey exceptional at defending (33 tackles so far this season with a close on 100% success rate) and Flamini providing a credible and effective alternative, there’s no need to be worrying. Vieira (for whom Gooners still pang at night) was hugely imposing and physical, but he was also technically brilliant. Aside from a few (expensive/aging) players like Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, maybe Daniele De Rossi, there wouldn’t be many who’d fit that bracket today.
On the other hand, I think it’s been clear to regular Arsenal watchers that the squad has been lacking in creativity since Fabregas and twat left in the summer of 2011. In both the Invincible side and more recent builds Arsenal have often fielded two or three playmakers (most recently, Cesc/ twat/ Arshavin) on the pitch at the same time, and that hasn’t really been the case since the season of Van Persie’s backpack. This has caused some troubles for L’Arse, especially since RVP and his ability to consistently put away half-chances left. Last season it was simple enough for other teams to double mark Cazorla: with a pair of wide forwards on the wings, Arsenal would all too often look devoid of ideas in the final third. Rosicky (when fit) went some way to alleviate this predicament, but the benefits of signing a world class playmaker like Özil should be clear enough.1 The squad should in theory (and the early signs have been fairly promising) be consistently threatening going forwards, without the need to shoehorn Wilshere (when everyone’s fit) into an attacking role that doesn’t suit his game as much, or to rely upon the fitness of an aging Rosicky. And, at this point in time, having Mesut around certainly does seem to be working out, even if he’s clearly not yet fully up to speed. Optimism abounds, and that raises my suspicions, particularly as Arsenal have yet to face a significantly challenging opponent.
In my neurotic speculations, I’ve come up with four primary concerns arising from Mesut Özil in the Arsenal team. The first of these concerns physicality and fitness. Arsenal still has quite a small squad, with plenty of injuries at present, and with Özil easily the best player I can see him getting overplayed and being heavily targeted by mid-table hatchet men (if such clichés still exist, and Philippe Coutinho would probably testify). He isn’t exactly thickly built which, whilst obviously helpful for skipping past challenges, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in his durability. I’m also reminded of issues with him in the first year and a bit of Jose’s reign at Real Madrid, where he wouldn’t be trusted/put in good performances in Classicos as he wasn’t actually particularly fit. Pictures of his smoking on yachts aside, there was a feeling that he couldn’t really sustain a 90 minute performance against a top side. Now BLAH BLAH WET NIGHT STOKERLANDBURN COULD HE DO IT I DON’T THINK SO YOU NEVER KNOW WITH THESE DIVING FOEREIGNERS BLAH BLAH but seriously, we all know that the Premier League is quite intense, and that skillful players receive a lot less protection from referees than in La Liga. If Özil got a bad injury, it could be a disaster (for confidence as much as anything) for Arsenal, and even if he does stay fit, one could reasonably fret about his capacity to sustain himself over a season.
HOWEVER – I can’t take this worry particularly seriously. Leaving aside the swift impact that a player like Mata was able to have immediately on moving to England (though, in fairness, it did take David Silva about a year to get fully up to speed, and he has had injury impact on his performances, as happened last season), Özil has actually bulked up a fair bit over the past couple of years. I certainly noticed that he looked pretty strong and tough for such a nippy player in Euro 2012, and in physical terms he hasn’t really looked back since this progression.
The next concern is that Arsenal could become overreliant on poor Mesut, much as the 2008-11 side was on Cesc. I can remember just how disastrous the injuries he sustained in his last two seasons were for the (still just about operative) Arsenal title pushes at the time, as well as how even the experienced members of the squad (RVP aside, though he was seldom fit) would shirk responsibility in games and just hope that Cesc would sort things out.
Now, I could see this coming to happen, but I don’t think it will. Quite apart from the fact that Arsenal already have a cracking playmaker like Cazorla, should anything happen to Özil I feel they would be fine: the squad is a much more psychologically balanced on these days. The experienced players (the Germans and Spaniards in particular) are much more determined than someone like Arshavin was, whilst the younger players are far more committed than the likes of Denilson and twat. Furthermore, the overall range of quality in the squad is lower – there is less deadwood, and also less star power, which evens out to a healthy situation where the team as a whole share responsibility. Özil’s arrival might change that mentality, but I don’t think it will: he has been added to a pre-existent squad, whereas Cesc grew up alongside the team that became over-reliant on him.
The final two fears are sides of one coin, so I will deal with them together. They’ve been able to fester a bit because Santi has been injured…what worries me is the prospect of two ‘wanderers’ in the same eleven. When fielding Cazorla and Rosicky at the same time this hasn’t been a problem: Santi is quite hardworking off the ball, whilst Rosicky’s energetic pressing is one of the best parts of his game. However, Özil isn’t exactly renowned for his defensive work (not that he ought to be), and with him and Cazorla in the same eleven (which, to be honest, is a prospect that mostly makes me drool), I could see Arsenal being more vulnerable on the break2, particularly against sides with a speedy attacking right-back. In all fairness, Podolski is no Dirk Kuyt, but he does tend to stay out wide more than Cazorla, which inherently gives his full back a bit more cover. This is one area where perhaps the BLAH BLAH PHYSICAL DM beastie rears its head again, and the worry doesn’t stop there.
For Arsenal to be vulnerable to counterattacks, they have to be getting caught up the pitch as well, and herein lies the second facet of my fear: that with too many playmakers (and without a finisher quite as clinical as RVP) we will see a return to the ‘sterile dominance’ problem of the 08-11 side, where Arsenal hold possession in the opposing team’s defensive third without much idea of how to score a goal from it, before ultimately giving the ball away at an inopportune moment when most of the team (including, all too often, one of the centre backs) is far up the pitch. Özil has a high conversion rate from his shots, but in part this is because he takes so few! Santi does take quite a lot, though at the start of this season he was shooting far less than at the start of his debut season, the tactics columnist on Arseblog raising the concern that it had been coached out of him (though he admitted that it was rather too early to be making judgments).
I do feel however that in a way this is quite a gauche concern to be raising, as one thing that is perhaps more futile than anything else to predict is exactly how a new combination of players are going to operate together. I suspect that I (along with most Arsenal fans I would imagine) am still somewhat traumatised by the Denilson/Almunia/Eboue/Clichy/Silvestre days of horrendous defensive errors, bottling leads, NEVER shooting, and general stupid cowardice. I don’t think that sterile dominance will be too much of a problem, particularly if Ramsey can retain his eye for goal and Santi continues to be unafraid to take a pop.
As for conceding to counter-attacks, I think this is also caught up with painful remembrance of that last side. Arteta and Flamini are both much more responsible deep-lying midfielders than the likes of Song or Denilson (ugh), whilst the centre backs don’t tend to go charging up the pitch in a suicidal manner as Gallas, Vermaelen and early Koscielny used to (I’m hoping that Vermaelen’s spell on the bench has taught him a bit in this regard – the early signs in the West Brom game were positive). The team as a whole has a different mentality to those days as well, which I already hinted at when discussing overreliance: there’s plenty of balls, grit, spit, stones, bones, drones, spirit, determination, and all the other MoTD-beloved clichéd traits.
Where does this leave us then? Nowhere, to be honest. I’ve raised a series of potential problems but dispelled each of them in turn, almost as a ceremonial abjuration of fears and suspicions, a non-event for the sake of my own fragile ego (and that of other Gunners?). I plead non-intention: I didn’t realise that I didn’t believe in my own concerns, honest! My vague sense of doubt, of excess hype (the jinx concept), even after some good performances – I had to do something! Unfortunately, it’s been a failure. I’ve only increased hopes, which, consequently, has only increased my fear. Fuck me. At least Arsenal fans (hopefully) won’t have to see Theo Walcott taking corners or free kicks anymore.3
- Incidentally, this point was made excellently by Tim Stillman a couple of months ago (amongst others).
- As we all know, Özil is exceptional on the break. In fact, Arsenal are pretty damn incredible on the break, which feels a mite ironic at times.
- A leftover from last winter when he was Arsenal’s most important player and we were placating him so that he’d sign da ting? Glad that’s not an issue anymore. (Touch wood…)