In the end, it was the only thing Mesut Özil had to break sweat to do. Not the finish – which was a master class in watching the ball all the way and not hurrying the technique – but actually getting there, as he was still a long way away from play – the only time in the match – and as he reached Aaron Ramsey’s cut-back, he expertly guided on the half-volley into the top corner.
Özil’s goal set Arsenal on their way to a superb 2-0 win against Napoli, scoring from the type of move that when Arsenal perfect, is usually too slick, too evasive for opponents to handle. It has been an impressive start to the season, one though, which has seen Arsenal make a slight shift to the way they normally play. Because in six league games,Arsenal’s average possession has dropped from 58% last season, 60.2% in 2011-12 and 60.3% in 2010-11, to just 53.7% this season. That may just be a case of a streamlined Arsenal side still working out how best to play with each other but this is an Arsenal side also, which manages moments better.* In that, it might be more similar to the early 2000s Wenger sides, and not the nearly teams of 2007-08 and 2010-11, which played a mixture of joy and ruthlessness that can be both intoxicating and devastating – as Napoli found out in the first 15 minutes.
* Roy Hodgson says that football matches are not decided over ninety-minutes, but in a handful of incidents (or transitions as it might be said in coaching terms) and it’s about picking these moments to be truly effective.
The Arsenal Way, though, has taken a bit of a battering in recent years, exacerbated by the trophy drought. Previously it was vibrant brand of football – mixed with discipline and steel – that weaved intricate patterns up the pitch like delicate fingers up Chantilly lace. In the past few years it became ever more intricate, more possession-based (as popularised by Spain and Barcelona) and even comical as moves could feature 15-20 passes but be soiled by a miss-kick in front of an open goal (sorry Gervinho). The old way, though, looks like it is coming back (probably even inspired by Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich), owed in large part, to a record-breaking German: Mesut Özil.
To understand Mesut Özil’s movement, I refer you to a scene in the Minority Report (about 1:36:00) where Tom Cruise, on the run from the police in a crowded mall with a pre-cog as hostage (somebody with the ability to see the future), suddenly finds himself surrounded. On all sides police are zeroing in and for a moment, amid the flurry of movement and busyness, he has nowhere to turn. The pre-cog, though, tells him not to move because in a few seconds, a man selling balloons will obscure their view, allowing a convenient escape. What Özil would do on the pitch, wouldn’t be too dissimilar, except he wouldn’t hold his position because he never stops moving, but to use the man with the balloons as a decoy, running in behind in the space he has just vacated.
Özil’s spatial awareness is extraordinary. He’s a little like WALL-E, surveying the area and then scuttling into the spaces where others don’t go. His special move is drifting into wide areas (I write for Arsenal.com that his role might be best described as an inside-forward) and this is why he works so well at Arsenal. Wenger has always maintained he prefers wide players who roam inside, but with Özil then moving into those spaces that the wide player vacates (in recent games, it has usually been Jack Wilshere in that role), it means Arsenal always have a zone occupied: Özil makes the fluidity complete.** Indeed on the training ground, Arsenal practice a drill called “through-plays” which is an exercise which aims to help players learn where their team-mates are. With Özil always slotting in, filling the empty spaces, it’d make finding each other on the pitch more natural. One can also see why Özil’s lateral movement (and indeed the team’s) helpful in the defensive phase as it means whenever Arsenal lose the ball, there is somebody always covering, ensuring that the players are still evenly distributed across the pitch. Indeed, that was one of the things Arsenal’s front four did so well against Napoli because whenever the attacking players swapped over, they made sure that they stayed in that position until the next phase of play.
** Santi Cazorla expands on Arsenal’s fluidity in an interview with talkSPORT: “I speak with the coach and tell him I can play wherever you want. My preference is to start on the left but then [as the game unfolds] go to the middle. Wenger speaks with me before every game and he’ll say: ‘You play on the left, but only left when we don’t have the ball. When we have the ball, you can come in – you are free.’”
Özil also has this unique dribbling style that makes him so effective, running with the ball almost side-on as if showing the opponent the ball, with his head always up. He’s always looking to change direction or slip a quick pass. Indeed, Arsenal have submitted to his creed as much he has Arsenal’s, with it especially notable against Napoli, Mikel Arteta slipping quick passes to Ozil because he knew swiftness would be key to making the most of his strengths. In the same way Santi Cazorla made Arsenal tiki-taka again after signing, Özil’s master of space makes Arsenal fluid. “I think he is like the team,” said Wenger. “He had an outstanding first half (against Napoli) where you had everything you want to see from a great player – individual skill, team play, finishing, final ball… just sit there and enjoy it. I believe as well that he enjoys playing football and you could see that. He enjoys playing with his partners; he has integrated very quickly into the team, with the mentality. He came as well in a period where we are doing well and that maybe made it easier.” Özil’s team-mates will probably concur too; he’s certainly made things easier.