Arsenal on the Wind-Özil of Greatness
If a club wants to progress, one of the things it needs is better players than the ones it already has, assuming that’s possible. With that in mind, only one club in the world doesn’t ‘need’ Mesut Özil, and that’s Barcelona, seeing they have the only number 10 in the world who’s better. And even then, they could still make good use of him. Even without the deeper context of Arsenal and their current situation, Özil would instantly become the best player in his position at the club, thus making him needed.
Speaking of the only number 10 better than Özil, Arsenal sold him – as well as the man they’d planned to be his successor two years ago. Since the sales of Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri, the lost creativity has been a cause for concern. In 2011/12, they scraped by in a poor league through mostly Robin van Persie’s incredible form, utilising the likes of Alex Song more creatively and, in essence, chancing it. With those two gone the next season, Santi Cazorla was almost alone in providing direct creativity high up the pitch. His being the only avenue made Cazorla easier to isolate, especially in big games and the first half of the season.
The move out to the left hand side remedied this, to a point, but neither Tomas Rosicky nor Jack Wilshere offer much in the way of goals and assists, still leaving Cazorla as the only proper direct creator. He made up for the wide creativity that had been lost, but there was still a chasm in the centre. It showed in the performances: defensively exceptional, but disjointed and meek going forward. They did enough to win their games, but only just. Özil offers variety on top his creative skill, fitting into both more possession-centric and direct counterattacking styles.
Özil’s propensity to drift into wide areas – generally the left – makes him ideal to play with both Cazorla and with Lukas Podolski. For the German national team, when Podolski is on the left-hand side and Özil at number 10, they sit in the standard 4-2-3-1 off the ball, but on it, Podolski tends to run on and play as a second centre forward, leaving Özil to find space on the left hand side and making it more of a 4-2-4 shape. He often does the same on the opposite flank, with Thomas Müller taking on the second striker role. This works especially well in games in which they play more on the counter. In games they control more, Müller and Özil tend to drift between eachother, as number 10 and pseudo-right winger.
Within those examples, there is a basic template of how Arsenal can and will use him. Podolski and Theo Walcott are both capable as the auxiliary second centre forward, with the £42.4million man wandering into their vacated areas out wide, for more reactive setups. Similarly, Cazorla and Özil could (and hopefully will) combine to great effect. Cazorla on either wing is a wide player in name only. He goes where the space is, and where he can have most effect, but with the left hand side as his base. Özil does the same but stationed from the middle. Özil’s wide movement is the best of any number 10 on the planet. When he will drift towards the left, Cazorla will exploit the space inside, and vice versa. The versatility and intelligence the two share will surely make them ideal team-mates, as soon as they can gain an understanding.
Where there’s a Wilshere, there’s a way
Something else that Özil does is enable Wilshere as a deep option again. His indiscipline last season was damaging to the side, but with more creativity higher up there is less need for him to charge forward. Like in his breakthrough season, his contribution will be the bonus rather than the necessity it appeared to be at times last year: That is how it should be. The reaction to Wilshere’s recent form is surprising as you would’ve expected people to know that he is very, very good. You would also expect people to be more rational about a player who has spent so much time injured and is only 21 years old. He has lost his place to Aaron Ramsey, who went through an almost identical cycle post-injury. It takes time. A minimum of pressure on Wilshere will be the best thing for him and at club level, that is what he has. With no reliance on him, even to play every week, Arsenal can let him steadily get his way back to full fitness and form.
One Strike(r) and we’re out!
The talk over this summer was, understandably, about the need for a striker, as Olivier Giroud remains the only legitimate centre forward at the club. But what can most strikers do with little to no service? All-round centre forwards who can bridge that gap are rare. Arsenal sold one last August and had their bids for another, Luis Suárez, very publicly rejected. The main problems in the squad, in order, were the need for creativity and the lack of depth in defensive midfield, up front and in defence. The former two have been fixed, but there still remain the issues of the latter pair.
Arsenal saw between 2007 and 2011, with the cases of 07/08 Emmanuel Adebayor, 09/10 Nicklas Bendtner and 2010 Marouane Chamakh, that top level service can make any striker look significantly better than they are. The combined talents of Özil and Cazorla mean that even Podolski and Theo Walcott are semi-viable backup options, should the worst come to the worst. Hopefully there will be some kind of signing in January – more likely, if any, to be a seat-filler than seat-seller, but someone who can cover for and challenge Giroud. That is, assuming Nicklas Bendtner hasn’t had a complete personality transplant and career revival… probably a safe assumption.
Still, just because Podolski and Walcott will now be able to do more passable impressions of lone strikers, it does not mean that any injury to Olivier Giroud will not cause mass worries. Going forward, as they are, they can do as they did in 11/12 and get by. Of all the summers that shouldn’t have culminated in ‘getting by’, this was supposed to be it. It’s not a disaster, but it could conceivably turn out to be.
Back to the Future
The story is similar at the back. For once, the defence purely as itself is no cause for concern. With Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny forming a fantastic partnership, and the very strong full backs either side of them in Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna (who in turn are well-covered), Arsenal – for a long time – have one of the best defences in the league. And Thomas Vermaelen, despite his flaws, is not a bad backup to have.
Bacary Sagna’s few games as a centre back have been very impressive but how much can really be ascertained from games against Sunderland, Fulham and Fenerbahçe? What’s more, all of those games had him next to Mertesacker, to whom his style is complimentary and who can make any central defender look good as long as they don’t charge out of the defensive line every few minutes. If the German is unavailable for any great length of time, there will be serious problems. None of the other three are strong organisers and are very similar to each other, stylistically. Only partnerships involving Mertesacker have any balance.
Even if one assumes Sagna will be fine, then there’s Carl Jenkinson at right back – who has done well but is still some way short of Sagna’s levels – with Mathieu Flamini as third choice. A new centre back or right back was the requirement, but buying neither is a pretty unnecessary risk. As with the striker situation, they can get by, but there shouldn’t be the need to do so.
The club will defend itself by saying that just because it has money, does not mean it should buy just for the sake of it. Looking at the players who actually did move, it is somewhat tough to disagree: Sagna is a better centre back than all of Mamadou Sakho (who cost Liverpool £15million), Ashley Williams (for whom Swansea wanted circa £10m), Martín Demichelis (£4million to Manchester City) and Kolo Touré (free), to name a few examples, and it is similarly difficult to find good right backs. That said, if they stay lucky with defensive injuries, as they did last year, then such issues will come up rarely, if at all. But it still should not have to have been a cause for worry if it did. The concerns in midfield are mostly solved, with the Özil and Flamini signings.
Realistically, the squad depth issues put the title at a solid ‘probably not’ at this point. But the difference between this Arsenal and so many others is that so much of their strength lies in their defence. The style of play in the season’s opening few games – the Villa horro show apart – has reflected this; we are far more contented to play more on the counter, trusting themselves on the defensive side and attacking far more directly. How nice it is to be able to say that about Arsenal once more.
The ability of the first XI rather than the whole squad would make a cup a far more likely proposition than the league. This Arsenal will surprise people – the extent of that surprise remains to be seen.
Follow Michael Keshani @RoamingLibero