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Mesut Özil: Football’s last number 10

Mesut Özil is not an easy player to like these days, he does have an elite PR team but this is also a player that has been carrying the “lazy” brand over his head his whole career, a player that the English press have enjoyed taking shots at for years, a player that isn’t the flashiest on the pitch unlike an elite goalscorer or a Neymar. But the brilliance of that left foot will be remembered for a very long time.

Few players have polarised opinions over the last decade like Mesut Özil, off-field issues slowly creeping in the debate surrounding the German playmaker. An under-performing luxury player for some, a world-class talent that Arsenal failed to build around for others, the German has been a hot topic ever since his signing in 2013 from Real Madrid, in what was then a club-record £44M deal. However, with football on hiatus and Özil nearing the end of his Arsenal career, now might be a good time to look back on one of football’s brightest talents, but also a casualty of the sport’s evolution.

What is a Mesut Özil ?

What might look like a stupid question could well end up revealing what is a big part of the issue regarding Mesut Özil and the lack of appreciation over his performances throughout his career : a lot of people don’t really know what Özil is good at. Everyone knows he is a top passer of the ball, with 216 assists in 558 professional games, there is no denying he will go down in history as one of football’s greatest creators. But a lot of what Özil does goes unnoticed compared to his well-known passing ability.

Özil runs. He runs a lot more than given credit for, on average running 3 more kilometres per game than Alexis Sanchez. he doesn’t like to defend (and he often doesn’t defend) but a single 1-minute focus on the German during a game when Arsenal have the ball is enough to show how good he is at moving into space, what is often branded as him hiding really is him finding little pockets of space between the lines or in behind the defence, more often than not in the right half-space, where he can cut inside on his left foot.

This often leads to chances he creates or helps create by opening space for a runner. This awareness on the pitch is a characteristic shared with many other German internationals of his generation, most notably Thomas Müller. That allows them to be exactly where they need to be at the right time, something that a player like Aaron Ramsey has benefitted from numerous times with his runs from deep.

He also takes responsibility, not necessarily by going all heroball and taking on the whole opposing team, nut a simple flick, a simple run to open up some space for a teammate, those are small things than can lead to a goal, and things you don’t notice off the ball when it doesn’t come off for whatever reason.

Özil isn’t the pacy flashy dribbler he once was at Werder Bremen but this also comes from the fact that he has grown to know what works and what doesn’t, instead relying on a shoulder drop to get away from defenders and his signature bounce finish in 1v1 situations. For a player heavily reliant on others finishing the chances he creates, he has been made to shoulder a lot of the responsibility over Arsenal’s failings in recent seasons, even though his creative numbers have been consistent from 2013 to 2018.

Contrary to popular belief, Mesut Özil’s peak years have been at Arsenal and not Real Madrid, namely the calendar years 2015 and 2016, after returning from a knee injury in January 2015. The standard of performances fans got accustomed to was simply phenomenal, especially taking into account the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo was replaced by an out-of-form Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud as the primary beneficiaries of Özil’s creativity. Near the end of that period, the German also reinvented himself playing almost as a second striker in 2016 when Alexis Sanchez was successfully moved to a central position, this meant more runs in behind and more goals for the number 11, with a key winning goal away at Ludogorets and a hat-trick in the reverse fixture, Santi Cazorla’s final Arsenal game.

Ya Gunners Ya

With a big fee comes big expectations, especially for a club that had only signed Mathieu Flamini and Yaya Sanogo up until then. Özil was supposed to be the missing piece of the puzzle, the big money addition to take Arsenal to the top and justify Arsène Wenger’s decision to build the team around academy kids and a few veteran leaders in Mertesacker, Arteta and Sagna. Özil and Wenger were a match made in heaven, as showed by the appreciation they have had for one another in the 5 years they’ve spent together.

However, as much as Özil was Wenger’s dream signing, he was also a sort of square peg for Arsenal’s round hole. The Gunners had lots of number 10 profiles at the time, with Wilshere, Cazorla, Ramsey and even Rosicky fighting for the central midfield spots, whether it was alongside or ahead of Mikel Arteta, the more immediate need was a striker, but Wenger was never going to pass on an opportunity to sign Özil, even if it meant shifting Cazorla out wide and keep on giving Giroud 40 games a season.

Whether it was the right decision or not, we’ll never know but that signing did carry a lot of importance and meaning, it meant Arsenal were finding a way back into the market and were hunting for trophies as well, it only took 9 months for silverware to return to the Emirates with Özil playing a big part in breaking a 9-year long trophy drought. What followed was a World Cup win with Germany, a disappointing stint on the left wing as Wenger experimented with a 4-3-3 and a knee injury that led to the Özil we have known for the majority of his Arsenal career, less lightweight and a stalwart at the number 10 spot in a 4-2-3-1 that was a feature until the very end of Arsène Wenger’s reign.

Far from the image of the inconsistent luxury player that he is in the eyes of his detractors, Özil kept on producing creative excellence in an ever-declining collective under an ever-declining Arsène Wenger, quickly becoming the fastest player to reach 50 Premier League assists, up until 2018, where everything went wrong on the 23rd of may.

The drop

One might say that a drinking game counting Ivan Gazidis’ mistakes at Arsenal could be lethal, and that person would probably be right. Giving Özil the biggest contract in the history of the League looked like a desperate move but one that made sense at the time, he was the best player in the team, performing well and the club just couldn’t afford to lose both Alexis and Özil. The real crazy decision has been the Emery appointment in may. Unai Emery, a coach famously known for his distrust of attacking midfielders, tasked with leading Arsenal in a new era.

The Spaniard became obsessed with changing systems while at Arsenal but the main features were a conservative midfield pairing, no real number 10, the player in advanced midfield often playing like a classic central midfielder given how deep his teammates were, hardly ideal for a box-to-box midfielder that love arriving in the box from deep and a mercurial playmaker that needs movement around him to thrive.

That new era started with Ramsey and Özil, Arsenal’s best midfielders, both playing out of position to fit in Emery’s conservative system. Soon, both were out of the team for more hardworking players for Özil, and more defensive-minded players for Ramsey. However, when things started to look bleak, Emery still turned to the German, who often responded fairly well on the pitch, even though his creative numbers took a massive hit, going from 3.5 chances created per game to 2.1 under Emery.

How much that is down to Emery is unclear, as a natural decline is also expected, Özil is now 31 and has been playing at the highest level since 2007. On the other hand, every single creative metric for Arsenal has gone down a cliff when Emery arrived.

Things have been better since Mikel Arteta’s appointment, Özil has been putting in more work than ever, especially in terms of counter-pressing after losing the ball, which is probably easier when the relationship between player and coach is one of trust rather than defiance. Yet, it looks like the playmaker’s history at Arsenal is edging ever closer to its final chapter

A sign of the times

Above coaching and ageing, one of the main reasons behind Özil’s struggles in recent years might well be that football has evolved, and that it is catching up with him just like it caught up with his mentor Arsène Wenger years before. Football has changed, the 4-2-3-1 isn’t used by many top clubs anymore, and for good reasons, the number 10 as we know it is dying. In the era of counter-pressing and 90-minute intensity, clubs can’t afford to have a player not putting in a shift like his teammates, 4-3-3 is now the main formation, in order to make the pitch as small as possible once losing the ball, which requires a physicality that most classic number 10 just don’t possess.

James Rodriguez is a benchwarmer in Madrid, Kevin de Bruyne thrives in a deeper role, Thiago Alcantara often is Bayern’s deepest midfielder, Liverpool play with 3 hardworking midfielders even though their ability on the ball is limited, this is the era of high-intensity midfielders and wide playmakers, 10s now have to pick between or the other more often than not, Bernardo Silva plays on the right wing while de Bruyne’s superior physicality allows him to play in a 4-3-3, something Özil doesn’t have the legs nor the lungs to.

For the right or the wrong reasons, football is moving beyond the Zidanes or the Riquelmes and leans now more on physicality than ever. Even Özil’s heir to the throne, Kai Havertz, is a much more dynamic player capable of playing from the right with ease. After all, Özil did leave Real Madrid because Carlo Ancelotti sidelined him in favour of Gareth Bale, a much more physical player, playing out wide and allowing Ancelotti to play a 4-3-3. Real Madrid have since won 4 Champions League, it is the pace and power era.

One last dance

As outdated as number 10s might be, it looks like Arsenal will remain a 4-2-3-1 team for the time being, a system where Mesut Özil remains the creator this team needs to supply for Pépé and Aubameyang. Not so much a farewell tour for the German, but rather a chance for him to reconcile with fans that either worshipped him from the start or never really trusted him, a final dance before saying goodbye, a final chance to appreciate a very special player, one that we probably won’t see ever again.

Mesut Özil might not go down as Arsenal’s best number 10, he might not even go down as an Arsenal legend, but he will remain one of Arsenal’s most important players, for his brilliance on the pitch, for the sheer magnitude of his signing, for the way his arrival coincided with the return of silverware in North London.

This is Mesut Özil’s legacy, a golden left foot and a player that managed to be the world’s best passer, an elite creator for over a decade and yet is now a throwback to another footballing era, the last of a dying cast, the number 10.

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