All eyes will be on Mesut Ozil this weekend (and no weird eye joke pun whatever intended here) on his likely debut for Arsenal at Sunderland this Saturday. Why? I’ll leave that to Ted Knutson:
I’m fairly agnostic about the value of goals versus assists – to me they are all scoring elements that differ slightly by the end result. In my opinion, it’s probably best to measure offensive contribution by combining the two numbers into one value. Ozil had a higher G+A per90 than Gareth Bale last year and in fact, every year, but is only one year older than Bale. Yet Bale sold for twice as much. Ozil’s non-penalty stats were similar to Cavani’s, but Cavani cost more. They were better than Falcao’s, but he also cost more. And that only addresses the direct scoring contributions, when Ozil actually plays a much busier and more active role.
He scores goals, he makes goals! He is an assist machine, leading the Big Five leagues in assists for the past five seasons, which is kind of insane.
But the question of Ozil is particularly interesting from a tactical perspective too, and not just in discussing how he will “fit” into the Arsenal midfield (presumably by being on it). This is one of the reasons why:
Arsene Wenger’s striker shortage has deepened after an injury to Yaya Sanogo left Arsenal with just one fully-fit recognised centre-forward [Olivier Giroud].
Sanogo – who as it stands is Arsenal’s second-choice centre forward – has returned to the club from France Under-21 duty after picking up a back strain.
The 20-year-old will undergo intensive treatment at the club’s London Colney HQ in attempt to ensure his fitness for the weekend visit to Sunderland – £42million signing Mesut Ozil’s debut.
The context here is clear: Arsenal is going to have this great play-maker but, for the time being at least, only one not-that-great-striker for him to make plays for. This presumably means Ozil will find Giroud in the box somewhere only for Giroud to miss or shoot the ball directly at the keeper. This seems to be the concern of not a few Arsenal fans.
You might have missed a very subtle (if perfectly reasonable) assumption at play here however, and one that, if we were to tease it out a little, would reveal a very narrow-minded view of the sport. In order to demonstrate what I mean, let’s look at every Ozil assist (and goal) from last season. Except instead of focusing on the brilliance of Ozil, keep an eye on the movement of the goal-scorers, particularly Ronaldo (I recommend turning down the volume unless you want to listen to some truly vile compilation music).
Ozil’s vision is hard to believe. More often than not, he passes to the player that we typically jab our fingers at while watching the game at home, screaming “Pass to that guy!” He distributes the ball with the perfect weight into the perfect corridor of space at the perfect moment. He managed to do this 91 times last season, which led to 13 goals. He did it with the face of a man half out of bed (but that’s probably neither here nor there).
Yet there is something else going on. Note how for example Ronaldo moves slightly further out wide in the final moments before a goal in a few instances in the video. He waits for the perfect moment to step away from the defenders marking both Ozil and the forward moving up in support.
The point here is that the striker isn’t some pylon that finishes goals, but a player who helps make the space for Ozil to find. I think here to Xavi’s famous quote in his interview with Sid Lowe: “Think quickly, look for spaces. That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day.” But ‘space’ isn’t static, nor is it the sole discovery of one player. Despite the intense focus on finishing for strikers, much of the work is done before the ball meets their feet.
If that’s the case, where does the striker’s ability to create space end and the play-maker’s ability to discover space begin?
You’re probably wondering why I just crapped out nearly 700 words on such an obvious question. But the point here is that, at least to some degree, we should be careful both when assuming absolute quality based on a high number of assists at a single club, and, more importantly in Ozil’s case, overreacting when those numbers dip at a new club (this obviously also applies to goals scored for strikers).
That’s going to be particularly important in Ozil’s case if he doesn’t set the team on fire right away. But it also points out the importance of finding the right focus in midweek training. A manager can motivate, can practice so that a player becomes comfortable and familiar with the movements and approach of their teammates, practice finishing, practice improvisation in attack. A manager cannot simply look at their players as a set of numbers or set of limited behaviours (“he tends to move out wide”) and just slot them in and sub someone out should it all fail.
These kinds of relationships are difficult to establish and maintain. They involve mutual understanding, subtle movement, and perfect timing. They cannot be reduced to Player A Good, Player B Bad. This should not only apply to Ozil, but any play-maker who has had trouble transitioning to a new team with new players, no matter how individually talented.