Artur Boruc was left groping for thin air when he realised he had been done by the Mesut Ozil Bounce. To be fair, he got a few fingers to it but by then it was futile; the trajectory of the ball had been deviously altered, and he was left clasping for the ball above him as if he was being strangled.
We all know the skill by now; an absurdly impossible shot perfected by the German to loop the ball over the goalkeeper by kicking it against the floor. Yet, to leave no one in doubt, Ozil celebrated by motioning as if to kick the ground. We didn’t expect him to score like that bearing down on goal on the 4th minute – how could you?, it’s so unorthodox – but once he did, a pang of recognition went around the Emirates at what just happened.
It ensured that the narrative would be all about him no matter what happened and he duly obliged, setting up Arsenal’s second goal with an impudent lay-off to Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Gunners ending up scoring three more, though, none of them involved him making the last pass or shot. In that respect, he was outdone by Mkhitaryan who ended up with three assists and a goal, yet, Ozil took all the limelight and much deserved too. He was perpetual, always influential in every Gunners move.
However, you can’t help but feel it was Unai Emery who played this one perfect; a straightforward home game it seemed for Ozil to wreak havoc in against a team who has not won away in 8 matches and with a severely depleted squad. Ozil, as Emery has said, has not always been “available for training, for the matches. Without the injuries, without being sick”. Yet, at the same time, Emery does not really know how to use him without upsetting the balance of the side.
At the start of the season, Emery played Ozil in a sort of dual no.10 role, sharing it with Aaron Ramsey though mainly to the right – but that’s if he played at all. He averaged at that point, just under 40 passes a game. The only outright central roles came in the 3-1 win over Leicester and the 1-1 draws to Crystal Palace and Wolves. Since then, Ozil has slowly been reintegrated back into the side but only in what seem winnable fixtures. This has allowed Ozil to rediscover his form but crucially, for Emery to loosen the strings on his philosophy somewhat and learn how best to use Ozil.
Against Bournemouth, Emery started Ozil to the right of a 3-4-2-1 knowing that potentially he had the structure to deal with Ozil’s roaming and relaxed defensive attitude. Indeed, that’s what Emery revealed at the end of the game, saying: “I am proud of every player’s work, and it is important that the players take confidence and take good combinations between them because I think we can play in an area being competitive with the ball and without the ball, be organised after with the possibility that individuals can be protagonists like today different players. But above all this is the team together the feeling together, and individually together they can all help us be stronger as a team.”
The result was instant, with Ozil moving all the way out to the left-flank to open the scoring. Indeed, for the rest of the game, he never really stayed in one position instead, lurking on the fringes of the structure, looking mainly to bounce off others and use them to find space.
Certainly, that’s what makes Ozil so good because, contrary to certain perceptions of him (i.e. laziness), he is overwhelmingly a team player. As Michael Cox writes for ESPN, there are two ways no.10s interpret this responsibility of being the fulcrum for the team. The first, is by shining through their individuality, like Diego Maradona who would inspire the team with mazy dribbles and goalscoring – this is often the player Ozil is accused of not being – and the second is less fussy, more concerned with using the confines of their creative freedom to make the team tick, and not with personal glory.
Ozil is much more the latter although Arsene Wenger always implored the German to add a ruthless streak to his game, and Emery took him out the side initially because he hasn’t learned it yet. Whilst being aggressive might go against his character, it’s in keeping with the modern game where the best players are consistent in making their mark on the game directly. Ozil does that with assists, but his overall game is gossamer-like – about darting into spaces behind midfields. He tends not to really waste his time coming deep for possession. “I run a lot and if I see a path where I can really counterattack, I go quickly and read the game,” he says. Indeed, that’s how he got his goal, ghosting unopposed down the centre of Bournemouth’s backline, whilst for the one he assisted, for Mhkitaryan, he showed a sudden hint of acceleration to take him beyond the last defender.
In that sense, Ozil is also thoroughly modern even if he seems quite classical too. Because, as Cox writes too, the best creative midfielders need to be able to roam laterally, and he does that well also. Ozil’s main areas of operation are actually closer to the touchline than at the central edge of the box, using his team-mates runs to double-up and create the overloads that has been so crucial to Arsenal’s game. Against Bournemouth, Henrkik Mkhitaryan was the perfect foil for him, the like-minded soul that Ozil always tends to gravitate towards on a match day. Under Wenger, that player was Alexis or Ramsey, this season it has sometimes been Alex Iwobi.
As a partnership, we haven’t really seen Ozil and Mkhitaryan click that obviously yet. There were glimpses last season in the Europa League run, but Mkhitaryan was always third, fourth or fifth fiddle. This season, he has stepped up to the mark and now averages a goal and an assist every 106 minutes.
He’s not always beautiful to watch; he does some very good things, like be aggressive and can turn in tight spaces, but he is also unfathomably ungainly at times, misplacing passes or touches. That may be something to do with the way he protects (or doesn’t protect) the ball, not using his arms to fend off defenders behind him, and as a result, can be easily imbalanced.
In any case, Mkhitaryan has found his place now more in Emery’s system; the type of no.10 that the manager likes, somebody who is capable of playing wide and defends like a central midfielder. Indeed, watch him press, and you will often see him move aggressively inside, trying to anticipate the chance to intercept; and then, if the ball bypasses him, sprint to the flanks to try and close up the space.
Like Ozil, he thrives on the freedom of movement granted to him to get into pockets when Arsenal build-up. The pair frequently traded positions on Wednesday night, though in the end, Ozil mainly chose the left side because there, not only can he open up his body and see the pitch better, but he also found a like-minded spirit in Matteo Guendouzi. With players like him in close proximity, Ozil was able to do what he does best, forcing Emery to admit how crucial he is to the side in this form. “His combination in the attacking third is important for us,” he said. The question now is whether Emery will keep the same sort of XI vs Spurs, namely Ozil and Mkhitaryan, or will he bring in the high pressing style of Ramsey, Lacazette, and the dual threat Iwobi provides on the flanks? Emery, of course was non-commital, saying it is a process still, of getting “our identity first, be competitive – how? First is being organised with our quality and skills, our combinations with different players in different systems and it depends in each match. After is the intensity with the ball and without the ball.” But tellingly, he ends with saying:“the idea is that every player can play with this idea.”