Even when he doesn’t play, Mesut Ozil can find himself a target for the pundits’ ire. The German playmaker was missing from Arsenal’s draw against Chelsea, and subsequent debate has centred on whether or not his absence helped or hindered the Gunners. You can’t knock Ozil’s star power—he manages to pull focus even when seemingly out of shot.
Ozil is growing understandably tired of his role as Arsenal’s perennial scapegoat.
The past few months have seen him go public with his discontent, attacking the ex-players who queue up to question and criticise him.
It’s certainly true that he takes a disproportionate degree of stick. His price-tag and reputation mean that more is expected of him than other mere mortals. Such criticism is often unfair. When Arsenal fail in the big games—as they frequently do—it’s unusual that Ozil is markedly worse than any other outfield player. You never hear Shkodran Mustafi, who cost almost as much, come under so much intense scrutiny. It’s simply that Ozil’s gifts attract close attention from markers and media alike.
Arsenal did seem to benefit from Ozil’s absence at Stamford Bridge. However, it has to be possible to praise Arsenal’s workmanlike performance without jumping to the conclusion that Ozil is therefore ‘lazy’. Ozil is patently not work-shy—statistics frequently demonstrate that he covers more ground than many outfield players.
Furthermore, when did running become the true measuring stick for defensive quality?
Mathieu Flamini ran a lot but it didn’t amount to much. The amount of leg-work a player gets through is surely less significant than factors like their aggression, their ability to read the game or their positional discipline. Ozil can be a hard-worker and yet still a poor defender.
Deploying Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi in the inside forward roles gave Arsenal a more balanced shape. That duo are more inclined to adhere to their given positions, tucking back in to support the central midfield pairing whenever required. Ozil’s instinct is to go wandering looking for space, but there’s a defensive cost to that. Iwobi and Welbeck were less adventurous, more risk averse, and thus more dependable.
Perhaps there was also an element of the Arsenal team stepping up to fill the void created by the absence of their star men. After all, it wasn’t just Ozil who was missing from the line-up—Alexis Sanchez also began on the bench. It’s possible that the inability to rely on the usual suspects forced other players, such as Aaron Ramsey and Hector Bellerin, to raise their game accordingly.
None of this is to suggest that Arsenal should permanently axe Ozil from their first XI from now on. There are games when his ability to unpick the opposition defence will prove invaluable. However, the lesson of Stamford Bridge is that there are also games when it is worth considering leaving him out. Wenger has a big squad at his disposal, and ought to be able to pick a team for the occasion.
That was one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest attributes—as Arsenal regularly found out to their cost.
Whenever he came up agains the Gunners, Ferguson would tailor his line-up to include the industrious Park Ji-Sung and Darren Fletcher. More gifted stars like Ryan Giggs and Dimitar Berbatov were made to accept roles on the bench as tactics took precedence over talent.
Until now, Wenger has been very reluctant to leave Ozil out—when fit he has invariably played. However, this season that guarantee may well not be there. With Ozil seemingly determined to leave the club on a free transfer at the end of his contract, Wenger may be less inclined to indulge him.
The indications are that Arsenal are going to have to prepare for life without Ozil sooner or later. The performance at Stamford Bridge shows that, when it comes to the big away games, there is a strong case for Arsenal to start planning without Ozil right now.