The Premier League, English football, likes to simplify things. Good or bad, without any elaboration. Talented players, some of the best in Europe, are deemed luxuries, with the thinly-veiled implication being that they’re not for every week. Oh how dull English football must be if we can’t indulge in the finest because someone’s throwaway comment about enigmatic players became a running theme in this country.
Let’s go back to the simplicity of good and bad. Maybe it starts at the very top, well above the parameters of English football. When last did a defender win the Ballon d’Or? Or to rephrase, when did a player who wasn’t a free-scoring forward take home the highest of individual accolades?
I’m in the minority, without question, but Philipp Lahm should have won the Ballon d’Or instead of Cristiano Ronaldo. But furthering that debate isn’t necessary at this time.
We measure the quality and impact of a player by the most ridiculously small window of information. We take things at face value, rather than dissecting what we’re given and finding answers that make a little more sense than just labelling someone as good or bad on a football pitch.
The barrage of criticism towards Mesut Ozil, unbelievably harsh at times, hasn’t waned. If anything, that game against Bayern Munich, Arsenal’s 2-0 home loss in the Champions League, has seen the numbers of those critical of the German increase.
Some journalists in England have come to the conclusion that he’s a bad player and a flop. Yet very few, if any, have chosen to tackle what they’re seeing from the midfielder, asking questions rather than telling people what to think off the back of very little.
Even taking the penalty incident away, Ozil wasn’t very good against Bayern. But I wouldn’t expect Sergio Aguero, Gareth Bale or Luis Suarez to play particularly well, or to have any influence on a game, if told to essentially play as a wing-back. These are players who need the ball to be effective. With Arsenal seeing only 18 per cent of possession in the second half against Bayern, shouldn’t we leave that game, essentially ammunition, away from the rifle pointed at Ozil?
But then comes the point about people’s expectations. I do wonder what some journalists, those leading the march against Ozil, thought Arsenal were buying in the summer. With pace and power still being the number one hit in this country, it’s probably easy to guess.
Arsenal play a very specific type of football, the only team in the Premier League with a clearly-defined style. That’s not sensationalist praise for them or a dig at other teams. In the same way we can associate possession football with Barcelona, gegenpressing with Dortmund and the counterattacking system used by pretty much all Jose Mourinho teams, Arsenal are similarly linked to possession-based, attractive football.
So Arsenal haven’t bought the wrong player in Ozil, to get that idea out of the way. Arsenal have needed a playmaker since Cesc Fabregas was sold to Barcelona. For a season they went without, only bringing in Santi Cazorla a year later. Cazorla has been excellent for much of his time in north London, but when the opportunity is there to better your own product, why not take it?
Ozil has made Arsenal better, away from the off-field image of the club, and he will continue to do so in the future. But the German is a very specific type of player who needs to be used in a very specific way. Watching him play at full-back, being asked to track runners from the best team in Europe, and then labelling him a failure is idiotic, there’s no point dressing it up as anything else.
Ozil is a playmaker. To further elaborate on that, he makes things happen in teams. He’s not a finisher, nor is he a Luis Suarez or Lionel Messi type of player who will pick up the ball, run past three or four players, bouncing off tackles, and then slot home after rounding the keeper. It’s not a failure of him, he’s just not that type of player. He doesn’t have the strength to play in such a way.
What he will do is create opportunities for those around him, as he has done for Arsenal when they had the personnel to make the best use of his qualities. Arsenal don’t have Aaron Ramsey or Theo Walcott to call on at this time. Lukas Podolski has been used sparingly by Arsene Wenger and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has only recently returned to full fitness.
Ozil has been branded a terrible player because we in England simplify football into its most basic form. No acceptance of the surroundings, whether the team is set up to allow certain players to work to their maximum.
In Ozil’s case, there is a point that has come to light since he arrived in England, that Mourinho regularly substituted him around the 70-minute mark while both were at Real Madrid. Ozil isn’t an athlete in the way Gareth Bale or Cristiano Ronaldo is. And again, not really a failure. Xavi can’t run as fast as Raheem Sterling, because they’re different players and the Spaniard compensates for a lack of mobility with intelligence and technique.
Some have chosen to use the acclimatisation period as a means to defend Ozil, but it’s more a case of familiarising himself with the country and the structure of English football than the football itself. The pace of the Premier League has gotten to him, allegedly. Players of that intelligence make their own space, which is a lot of what’s required from those playing in the centre of the pitch.
For the first time since Ozil became a recognised world star, he’s the leading name in a team, well above anyone else. That wasn’t the case at the star-filled Real Madrid and certainly not in the German national team. That means the spotlight at Arsenal shines brightest on him. It means when things aren’t going to plan, when injuries take their toll on others, when the defence concedes five and six, he’s the first to have the finger pointed at him.
For those who miss out on the good he does regularly, the numbers show that he is still able to influence Arsenal’s attacking game. Emphasis on the ‘attacking game,’ because he isn’t a defensive player.
But a better understanding on the type of player he is will act as his greatest defence. In a country so embedded in pace, power and work rate, and for one who likes to repeatedly trumpet its product as best, we shouldn’t be so cynical of those who aren’t cut from the same cloth.