By the time Mesut Ozil’s number came up, six minutes before the end, there was an acceptance that he had done enough. For some reason he has a point to prove; to show to people, the coach, that he fits into Unai Emery’s philosophy. In the end, his impact on the match was subtle, inconspicuous almost – an improvement in the second-half nevertheless, that coincided with Arsenal eventually securing the win.
It was Ozil’s involvement in the second goal that displayed why he is so priceless to Arsenal, and why Emery must find a way to fit him in. He picked up the ball midway though Cardiff’s half, stopped, surveyed the scene, then almost as if the gears suddenly clicked into place, zipped the ball to Lacazette’s feet. The striker then played the ball first time round the corner perfectly for Aubemayang to curl home. It’s not inconceivable that Ozil planned the whole move through. Except that he probably wanted the return from Aubameyang as he made a run beyond him that for a split second, opened up space for the number 14 to shoot.
Indeed, before the game, Emery said that where Ozil will play will change; depending on the opponents, and the players that are available. “I like the possibility to have the player play different positions on the pitch,” the manager said. “It depends each match and it is the same for other players too. For that, Mesut has played with me on the right wing and also as No 10 and we are going to continue to do that.”
Here, the selection seemed like a happy compromise. Ozil started in a position in between no.10 and right wing – which was at times, neither really. As a result, in the first half, he looked slightly confused as to where to be on the pitch. Lacazette was in his areas, Ramsey was getting the ball in the space he likes to receive it, Bellerin too – and even Matteo Guendouzi as this denied him from dropping deep.
The shape similarly was a strange one as once more, Emery varied his structure in order to find the perfect balance. He used broadly what was a 4-2-2-2 in possession against Cardiff with Aubemayang vacating the left flank at times to support Lacazette in attack. Ozil occupied an inside right position though weirdly fixed rather than the roaming role he was usually given by Wenger. He was often on the same line as Ramsey in the first-half, with Guendouzi and Xhaka making the double pivot behind, the latter drifting more towards the left side, allowing often Guendouzi to pick up the ball from deep central positions.
45 mins #CAR 1-1 #ARS (via @StatsZone): no rhythm or pattern to Ozil’s passing. Looks like a 4-2-2-2 shape with the ball – though even without it as lots of space on the flanks for Cardiff to attack when Arsenal lose it. pic.twitter.com/FWMIpVWBkJ
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) September 2, 2018
As explained though, he never really got going in the first period. In the second-half however, through his own volition or as a result of better spacing from the team, as Emery reasoned, Ozil grew in influence. He began drifting to the other flank, much like he did under Wenger, following his own inimitable sense of intuition that just knows where to be on the pitch, that sparked intermittentnly, impetus to Arsenal’s play. The Gunners seemed, not so much to lack that in the first half, but were so preoccupied with fulfilling Emery’s demands to a tee that it was stifling. [Lacazette: “He [Emery] wants us to keep the ball and possession. Today we made a lot of mistakes, even though he told us before to be careful. If we listen to what we asks us, then we can do a lot.”] Ozil’s disorder then, was like an enzyme that got Arsenal going.
“I think today in the second half Mesut played a good match because he worked every minute that he was on the pitch,” said Emery. “Maybe with the control and possession [we had] in the second half, and the positions on the pitch, he feels better on the pitch.
“I want to give every player the same condition and every player is very important. With Ozil and his quality, I think we need… his quality for the team.”
The other big decision that again saw Arsenal needing a boost to get over the line was bringing Lucas Torreira in for Guendouzi. So far Emery has resisted the temptation to start him, instead using Xhaka in a base with Guendouzi to presumably help with ball circulation. Bringing Torreira in then adds a little more pragmatism to the setup, but one which has changed the dynamism to Arsenal’s attacks for the basic reason that it simplifies Arsenal’s approach.
Against West Ham when Torreira came on, the team went from an asymmetric 4-3-3 to a standard 4-2-3-1 that covered the flanks better, and that allowed Arsenal to manage the game better. At Cardiff, Torreira came up with the assist for the winner, and generally was tenacious without the ball. Perhaps a midfield of Xhaka and Torreira is a little slow for Emery’s liking (pace wise), and in the back of his mind, maybe he is wary of seeing a repeat of the approach Arsenal took against Chelsea where they sat back. He also seems to favour an asymmetric approach, but so far – which further adds to Torreira’s viability – Emery is unwilling to deviate from using two number 6s to achieve this balance.
Preseason suggested a use of a 4-3-3 and the team extensively practiced the approach, but once Emery realised the profile of players he has in his midfield – his squad – he has tried to tinker with a number of variations to suit them. Without wingers, the full-backs provide the width whilst the “wide” midfielders are no.10s nominally tuck in. Indeed the key reason Arsenal failed to find their fluency against Cardiff, according to Neil Warnock, was that they were often left exposed. “I thought their full backs were as poor as they’ve been when you look at the games they’ve had this season. We had some great chances today.” Cardiff especially had success down their left side as Ozil in the first-half failed to transition to the flank quick enough. (They played 10 out of 13 crosses from Ozil’s side in the first period). Nevertheless, the full-backs were often the best players especially Monreal on the other flank, whilst Bellerin wasn’t as effective without the in-to-out runs that Henrikh Mhkitaryan normally provides. Ozil was better, as noted when he went the other way, towards the left in the second period, but in the first-half, it was conspicuous the absence of any such movement from him.
For Emery, the positioning of the attacking midfielders are very deliberate in order to help with the “spacing” and allow Arsenal build out properly. So far, that has been the primary focus for Arsenal under the new coach, the pressing emphasised as well of course, and he accepts there will be growing pains as he guides the team towards to the Guardiola dictum that characterises the modern game.
Emery: “It’s very important for me to continue doing this and improving. If you play every time long balls, you lose possession and momentum. We take risks in moments of the match, but when you break their pressing on the pitch you can find space for attacking the opposition. It is for that it’s clear you can maybe do one mistake like today and one action, but we need to continue with this personality. We need to continue also then to do the mix, to [play a] long ball with the space for the first action, and the second action to win possession on the pitch and then continue going forward to the opposition goal.”