Why Always Mesut?

ozil

When Arsenal lose matches they should win, people tend to go big on a couple of things. The first is a lack of leaders, which is an interesting and potentially plausible theory, even if it’s very difficult to quantify for observers on the outside. The second is Mesut Ozil.

The German playmaker is always one of the first players to attract criticism when Arsenal fail to fire, and while there are occasions when that’s warranted, it also seems there are plenty of times when it isn’t. Following the Gunners’ 1-0 away loss to Stoke City, Ozil really copped it. From former club champions like Martin Keown claiming he should “take a good look at himself” to sports-based websites like Bleacher Report claiming he “went missing,” there weren’t too people who bypassed Ozil in the post-match. Even the Stoke police gave the former Real Madrid man a clip on twitter, labelling him a missing person.

All of this is well and good, but the real question is how much of the negativity is fair. Now, you could mount a decent argument that his defensive output isn’t good enough. He’s a reluctant contributor without the ball, and even though he does move into defensive positions, there’s often a sense that he’s not willing to put a foot in once he gets into those spots. This kind of commentary is perfectly reasonable, but it’s also important to point out that defensive actions aren’t why Ozil is picked in the Arsenal line-up.

There’s no doubt Ozil could try to lift his work rate in this regard, as plenty of attackers, perhaps most notably teammate Alexis Sanchez, happily track back in a bid to contribute on the defensive end. There are also plenty of attackers who don’t, though, and the fact that Ozil gets singled out to such an extent for his lack of effort in this phase of the game doesn’t always seem warranted. Still, it’s hard to say that he defended attentively against Stoke.

On the attacking side of the ball, though, it’s hard to mount an argument that he “went missing” against the Potters, and it’s even harder to see how anyone could support such an assertion following a quick perusal of the statistics. Ozil played 92 successful passes at bet365 Stadium, more than any other player on the pitch, and the fact that he completed 93% of his passes shows that he wasn’t wasteful with the ball either. People might question how useful these pieces of distribution were, especially given that Arsenal enjoyed 77% of possession and failed to score, but Ozil wasn’t too bad with his chance creation.

He hit four key passes for the match, another game-high, and they weren’t just sideways balls to players who launched from long range. Take, for example, the two chances he generated early in the second half. The first of these involved Ozil receiving the ball in a left-of-centre location before weaving around a marker and sliding a ball in behind the Stoke backline. Hector Bellerin latched onto it with ease, and though the Spanish left-back had his shot saved by Stoke goalkeeper Jack Butland, Ozil wasn’t done there.

Just minutes later, he followed up with a whipped cross into the teeth of goal. Its precision was such that Danny Welbeck could take a seamless run and jump at it, but despite being in position to have an unchallenged shot at goal, the former Manchester United man failed to make solid contact, with the ball bouncing off his shoulder and over the top of the crossbar.

The 28-year-old went onto create another shooting opportunity later in the second period, and in a lot of ways, this is where the Ozil discussion gets interesting. If his teammates had taken the two chances described above, Arsenal might have gone onto get a win and Ozil might have been described as the difference-maker. He might have even been lauded for the quality of his passing, for his ability to spoon-feed opportunities to his Arsenal teammates. Instead, his teammates missed those chances, and all of sudden he hasn’t just lacked defensive intent, but all of his attacking excellence has been forgotten. Phrases like “virtually anonymous” were thrown around and he was accused of playing like a man who wants out of Arsenal, which isn’t really accurate.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with highlighting his lack of effort when the Gunners don’t have the ball, but there is a problem when Ozil’s attacking efforts are wilfully placed to one side. The only purpose that serves is to try and craft a narrative that he brought nothing to the table on either side of the ball, and that’s simply unfair on a player who created more chances than anyone else on the field. As Joey Barton noted, Ozil is “the easy person to pick on.” He looks languid and at times disinterested, and when things aren’t going Arsenal’s way, he tends to be the player people turn on. Throw in the fact that “he will never be a tackler,” as Arsene Wenger once put it, and he’s not the guy who will get credit for putting in a shift following a defeat.

After all, as Barton noted, “His skill set is in a different area, creating goals and giving other players opportunities.” That’s what Ozil brings to the team and that, for the most part, is what he should be judged upon. He should, of course, work to add something more in defence, but just as Laurent Koscielny is never going to be picked for his goalscoring capabilities, Ozil is never going to be picked for his defensive exertions. Whether that makes him a luxury player is up to the individual observer, but given that the former Schalke trainee has played more key passes (10) than any other player in the Premier League throughout the first two matches of the season, it’s hard to argue that he isn’t holding up his end of the bargain in attack.

There is a kind of subtlety to his game that means some of his play can be overlooked on first viewing, something Wenger himself has even noted, but that shouldn’t detract from what he does on the pitch. Call him out on his lack of defensive intensity when tracking back, and nobody can complain. Do so while trying to glaze over his offensive efforts when they’ve actually been impressive, as they were against Stoke, and you’ve veered away from the reality.

In overall terms, Ozil wasn’t at his best against Stoke, but he wasn’t awful either. In fact, he was actually pretty good. You could maybe even argue he was Arsenal’s best player on the pitch. Regardless of who you think was the Gunners’ best, though, Ozil didn’t go missing, and just as Arsenal’s line-up needed a little more balance over the weekend, so too did some of the commentary surrounding the club’s mercurial playmaker.