Last weekend, Mesut Özil took his assists tally to 10 in 11 in the league, and became the first player to set up a goal in six successive games. Those who rely on stats like this will likely come to the realisation that he’s not just one of Arsenal’s key players, but one of the Premier League’s top players too. What I find astonishing is that people are only beginning to give him rave reviews now.
Özil is playing the same way now as he always has — both before and since he first came to the Premier League in September 2013. Bizarrely, during his first two seasons in North London he was, in some corners of the football world, branded “a flop”, “a waste of money” who “went missing when it mattered” and undeserving of his considerable wage. Complete rubbish, of course.
Upon arrival, Özil was best known for his record in Spain, which led to his tag of ‘Assist King’. Expectations immediately up accordingly — forget any differences in how Real Madrid and Arsenal played (quick counter-attacking team versus patient build-up), anything less than hitting the headlines each week = disappointment. Furthermore, home fans were already familiar with him after he ran rings around England for Germany in the 2010 World Cup. Surely he’d be able to do the same in the league?
Other than nonsense like lacking desire because he didn’t turn up in the big games and failed to clap the fans, the German was chiefly criticised for not playing the ‘killer pass’. It’s ridiculous to have to point out something so obvious, but you can’t play this pass if it isn’t on. Otherwise it’s a ball that runs harmlessly through to the ‘keeper, or a ball across the box that is cleared by the defence or goes out for a throw-in. Everyone is obsessed with the killer pass, as if it’s the only pass that matters.
In reality, the so-called ‘killer pass’ is only possible if team-mates are in the right positions. Given that players are constantly thinking about where and when space will appear, every pass is important. If you enjoy stats, consider this one: in his time at Arsenal, Özil’s average pass completion rate exceeds 88%. Think about this too: against Crystal Palace in August, he had a success rate of 98%. 54 out of 55 passes. Imagine that — a player gets the ball 55 times in a match, and on 54 of those occasions he doesn’t give it to an opponent.
Özil’s stats have always been pretty consistent like that, but without this purple patch of assists people have spun it differently or turned a blind eye up until now. If Özil or Arsenal play poorly, he’s not taking responsibility and playing things safe. Only going sideways or backwards.
Again, utterly ridiculous. Özil is about exploiting space and releasing the ball at the right moment, which his doubters fail to appreciate. That doesn’t mean he’ll run past people, but when he gets it, instead of offloading it straight away, he’s happy to tempt defenders towards him or make them commit to one side. This naturally opens up space, which Özil is capable of passing or moving into and stretching the opposition defence. Even if it doesn’t directly assist, it’s often one that helps create a chance.
Arsène Wenger, Özil’s manager, perfectly sums up his ability to unlock defencees. But if you examine his words, he avoids clichés such as ‘killer pass’. In an interview with the club two years ago, he said: “When he has the ball I [know as a player I can] make the run. It’s what you call understanding. You understand that there are situations where he will see you and where he’ll deliver the perfect weight of the pass. It’s a combination of vision and weight of the pass. Of course it’s not a coincidence that in every league he plays, he has the most assists because he has those qualities.”
Brilliantly put, but too complex for the average football reader to understand, and therefore not one that mainstream media outlets are likely to publish (I’ll come back to this later).
Relatively speaking, his assists tally was never unsatisfactory, but a few key points would easily explain the difference from Özil’s early Gunners days. First of all, there was the matter of him adapting to the Premier League and a different way of playing. Not only that, but Arsenal’s season was interrupted by injuries to him and other players at various points. It’s also little surprise that, having played in every World Cup game and missed all of pre-season due to needing an extended break, it took him a while to get going last season.
Tactically, Arsenal aren’t doing a great deal differently. The welcome addition of Alexis Sánchez has helped, as his ability to receive the ball into feet or run onto it gives the team more variation going forward.
Moreover, full of belief, Arsenal’s players are now getting into goalscoring positions in the confidence that their team-mates will find them. As this pulls players back towards their own goal, Özil himself can get into more advanced positions, where he can put it on a plate for someone else by cutting the ball back or laying it off, instead of going through the defence each time.
But the obsession with the ‘killer pass’ among fans is too great. Its definition pretty much limits itself to a player passing in between two defenders for someone to run onto and bear down on goal. That’s something that’s extremely difficult to do every game, as any decent defence is too switched on to be caught out by a simple pass in behind them. You might only get the chance to play a pass like that a couple of times per game.
When it does happen, it’s great. Everyone will talk about what a wonderful pass it was. And Özil is certainly capable of it. But people will ask why he doesn’t do it more. Otherwise, powering past players and whacking one in from 25 yards are more interesting to fans. Özil isn’t known for either of these, which is why Alexis Sánchez — who’s also been a terrific signing — has made a greater impression to fans and the media, even though there is very little between the two of them.
Credit also has to go to Wenger, who has refused to engage in discussions with the media about the accusations levelled at Özil. He’s told them that there shouldn’t be too much pressure on his player, because he’s performed well and is acclimatising to a new league, and praised his importance to the team on multiple occasions. Not something the media and fans who digest their content are interested in, but all true, and reassuring for Özil to hear at the same time.
Going back to Wenger’s appraisal of Özil’s qualities, it’s the same story there.
Yet on this occasion, it is working in Wenger’s favour. A brief glance at Özil’s track record shows you his obvious class, and those managing him know when to look beyond pure figures. Wenger would never answer to questions about why his record signing was supposedly struggling, unpopular with his team-mates or refused to applaud travelling fans. It would lead nowhere, because if you argue with someone whose knowledge of the subject is less than a fraction of yours, you’ll only get dragged down to their level.
Whilst every manager would implore his players to disregard what they read in the papers, plenty would bow to the pressure through certain moves like leaving a player out of the starting line-up, or encourage him to adjust his game in a way that would appease spectators. Wenger, however, is being rewarded for his sustained faith in Özil, and not being influenced by the popular mantra that it’s all about ‘killer passes’.