Arsenal v Everton - FA Cup Quarter Final

Last night in Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich at the Allianz in the second leg of the round of 16 Champions League tie, Mesut Ozil put in a relatively poor performance and Oxlade-Chamberlain played pretty well.

A banal and uncontroversial statement, I think. But how would the conversation go say if someone responded:

“Oh yeah? Why?”

“Didn’t you see the game?”

“Yes, but I want to know what exactly set the two players apart.”

“You could just see it out there. He was, in the words of Jim White, ‘indifference personified. He bore the slope-shouldered countenance of a 14-year-old unwillingly making up numbers in the school second eleven. While others hunted the ball, he avoided it. While others chased and harried, he hid’.”

“Okay. What did Oxlade-Chamberlain do well?”

“He was ‘committed, brave, demanding the ball, he seemed absolutely to understand what was required if a miracle was to be fashioned.’”

“Right. I mean, that sounds convincing, but that’s a subjective impression based on a single match viewing. I’m not saying that isn’t valuable, but I want to know what exactly Ox did that Ozil didn’t.”

“Okay, well, look at their stats. Ozil came off at half time with a 58% pass completion, making seven of twelve completed passes. But Ox managed to make 20 of 27 passes with a completion rate of 74%. Plus Ox made 10 out of 10 take ons. Ozil didn’t attempt a take-on let alone win one.”

“But that information has no context. Were the passes valuable? Were they lateral passes? Or did they advance the play? Did they help Arsenal? And the take-ons, I know Ox kept possession but were they in dangerous areas of the pitch? I’m not disagreeing with you necessarily, I just want to get a clearer picture of why exactly one player was better than the other.”

“To me the two performances spoke for themselves. Football’s an art you know, not a science. And look, Ozil’s performance last night is part of a bigger pattern. He hasn’t been at his best this season.”

“Didn’t Ozil play brilliantly against Everton on the weekend?”

“But that was an outlier.”

“Okay, so Ozil’s sub par performances carry more weight than his good performances?”

“No, there have just been more bad performances than good this year.”

“But we can’t even define exactly what ‘bad’ means in context of a single game, let alone the whole season.”

“Again, you can just see it in how they play. I guess I mean bad based on Ozil’s career standard. He should be performing at his Real Madrid level.”

“Do you think his playing at Real Madrid alongside some of the best players in the world might have inflated his already positive numbers somewhat? Not that I have any way to separate the two.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“So maybe his performances are negatively affected by factors beyond his control. Like his team-mates? Manager? If that’s true, how would we determine his new ‘base-line’ of expected performances?”

“I don’t know. Just better than he’s playing now.”

“Okay, what about Oxlade-Chamberlain? What does this good performance mean for him then? Will he keep performing to this standard for the rest of the season now?”

“Look mate, I don’t know. This conversation is getting annoying.”

“Sorry, I’m just trying to get things straight in my head.”

“No, I guess not. He had a good night, Ox has a lot of promise.”

“But how do we know that Ox won’t drop back down to his usual standard after tonight?”

“He probably will a bit, but that doesn’t change how talented he is as a player.”

“But then we can’t really use this game as an example of how great a player he is, if it’s above his usual standard and is therefore likely to regress. What is Ox’s usual standard anyway? Or Ozil’s for that matter? How do we measure it? What skills shine through from game to game? What makes them great players across all possible worlds?”

“You’re thinking about this way too hard. I don’t know about all that but I do that Ox certainly has a better attitude than Ozil.”

“So attitude matters?”

“Of course! If you don’t believe in yourself, you’re not going to perform well. Think of any athlete who uses visualization, meditation.”

“But how can you measure for the effect of attitude on a player in a team? Football involves so much complex inter-movement between players. An errant pass can completely change the play. Does attitude affect this kind of decision making?”

“I think so.”

“But isn’t it possible that mistakes or unlucky bounces can cause a lack of confidence? And that a series of successful moves can strengthen confidence? How do we know simple variation in play doesn’t affect mood, and not the other way round?”

“We don’t I guess, but anyone who’s ever played the game knows that confidence and self-belief matters. You can see it on their faces. Like Ozil’s on the bench. He’s clearly rattled.”

“But wasn’t he smiling against Everton?”

“He scored! It should have been a great confidence boost, but he squandered it.”

“Wait, so performance does affect feelings of confidence.”

“Maybe it does initially, but then after the confidence problem is self-perpetuating.”

“At least until you face Everton in the FA Cup. Which gave a confidence boost that didn’t last, apparently.”

“I guess it didn’t in this case.”

“In this case, but not in others?”

“Ozil was injured.”

“Wait, so now you’re saying his play was affected by his injury. So how can we hold him responsible for a poor performance?”

“Goodbye, eff off. Go to hell.”

“Oh, sorry.”

Credit for the idea for this post goes to the great cule and musical polymath Kevin Williams.