It was easy to blame Mesut Özil, because it's easy to blame any athlete for anything. But last year, it was particularly easy to blame Mesut Özil. He arrived under the halo of his record £42.5 million fee at Arsenal, implicitly anointing him Savior, a title that almost always preempts failure.
In retrospect, it's fairly easy to spot the moment some Arsenal fans turned on him: Feb. 2, 2014. They were playing Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
After four months at the top, Arsenal had just relinquished first place in the England's Premier League. The looming showdown with the then-best team on the planet created a mist of hopelessness. Nevertheless, Arsenal came out ablaze. Given the events that were to transpire, it's easy to forget Arsenal's early strength and confidence, with no fewer than three chances before the eighth minute, when Özil sliced into the box, was tripped by countryman Jérôme Boateng, and drew the penalty. That's when it all went to shit.
Özil's poorly-taken penalty was saved, Kieran Gibbs got injured, Nacho Monreal came on and was summarily chewed up by Arjen Robben, and then Gunners keeper Wojciech Szczęsny was shown a red card in the 35th minute. In a mix of revisionist history and simplistic analysis, Özil's missed penalty was considered the turning point of the match.
Of course, this is a trite expedition for a narrative arc. There were still 82 minutes left to play and the entire second leg in Munich, and Bayern were in the midst of a 53-match unbeaten streak besides. But Özil, already an easy scapegoat due to the expectations surrounding him, makes it easy for his critics to resent his style of play, which is best described as anti-English, or at least counter to how the English prefer to see themselves. He doesn't sprint for the hell of it just to show he works hard, doesn't tackle just to get his legs dirty (or for any other reason,) and doesn't head the ball with a death wish. Much of Özil's game, like a noir anti-hero, comes from finesse: deceptive movements, silky touches, and killer balls.
In many ways, this made Özil an ideal Gunner. As Bart Schotten wrote at Statsbomb last January, Arsenal have long loved them some killer balls. Of every PL team in the past four seasons, the top percentage of expected goals coming from through balls belong to...Arsenal's last four seasons. Of course, this is merely a strategic decision, since other teams focus on other attacking methods. Still, Özil, who'd emerged as the Kaiser of through balls at Real Madrid, was expected to fit right in to life in North London. Still, if you're going to play lots of through balls, it'd be conducive to employ someone to collect said passes and deposit them into the back of the net. This is where things got problematic last season.
Arsene Wenger created an attacking midfield consortium around Özil consisting of Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Serge Gnabry and Lukas Podolski, but injuries somehow ravaged most of the corps as the season wore on. Özil had just 24 league starts as the no. 10, and wasn't able to form meaningful partnerships with any of his teammates.
In front of him, Giroud played almost every match as the lone center forward (save one affair featuring Nicklas Bendtner, may he rest in peace). Aside from the fact that it's difficult to forge any kind of synergy with constantly, completely altered lineup, the problem here—elatively speaking, since Arsenal did spend 128 days at the top of the table—is that most of these players don't complement Özil.
Theo Walcott, the ideal candidate to play to Özil's right, started only four league matches alongside him, largely due to a Walcott knee injury that saw him miss most of the year. Oxlade-Chamberlain is another decent choice, but he's young, raw, and had injury problems of his own, resulting in only three league starts. (Perhaps it's worth mentioning that Ox, along with Yaya Sanogo at center forward and Özil himself, were two of the bright spots of Arsenal's opening eight minutes against Bayern Munich.) As a result, Özil had to play much of the year with Ramsey, Wilshere and/or Rosicky on one wing with Giroud up top. All four, to varying degrees, are good players, and Ramsey had a breakout year, where he put the team on his back and at times looked to be one of the very best players in the world. But none are all too speedy or, barring Ramsey, dangerous runners off the ball. Giroud's only attacking move is a near post run, which is like going to a club with a dude who can only do the dice roll. Giroud's strength lies in hold-up play, which doesn't mesh with Özil's style since he needs teammates going forward, darting into space behind the defense, rather than taking up camp in front of it.
An Özil detractor might conclude that his relative inflexibility is his greatest weakness, that it is not he who is world-class but his former teammates Cristiano Ronaldo, Ángel Di María, and Karim Benzema. While superficially accurate, it's also a vapid counterargument. In fact, this isn't so much an argument against Özil as it is stating the obvious fact that good soccer teams are comprised of many good players who do different things well, and that teams with more good players tend to do play better than those without. It's a knock against last year's Arsenal side and their extensive injury list more than a critique of Özil himself.
For what its worth, Wenger saw these weaknesses and bought the best player available to work with Özil: Alexis Sánchez, an incredibly quick but physical winger who thrives at...well, lots of things, but especially runs off the ball and scoring from wide positions. In short, Sánchez is everything Arsenal missed last year when Walcott went down, and then some. Between Sánchez, an ostensibly healthy Walcott, and a maturing Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil should have plenty more to work with this season. The question isn't how good Mesut Özil is, but if Arsenal are good enough to take advantage of their midfield wizard.
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