As another English Premier League title chase appears to be eluding Arsenal’s grasp, never-ending speculation surrounding the futures of their most prominent players, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil, is sure to intensify with every passing transfer rumours as the club seeks to renew their respective contracts.
While Sanchez has been a revelation since his conversion to a striking role, with a league leading 17 goals, Özil has looked a far cry from the player that set the gold standard in creative affluence last season. The man branded by many, including popular commentator Ray Hudson, as Avatar Eyes for his out-of-this-world type vision has spaced out, particularly his last eight league games, where has gone scoreless and registered just two assists. Substandard performances in losses at title rivals Manchester City and Chelsea put the German international under mass scrutiny and after another disappointing performance in a ho-hum 2-0 home win against Hull on February 11, manager Arsène Wenger believes his star man has a crisis of confidence at the moment.
“Maybe he will find confidence back as well, because he misses chances. He has chances and he misses the chances that don’t look not feasible for him. I felt he did not feel confident against Hull. It’s always a problem because you think he can deliver something special but it’s true that technically he missed things that he is not used to.” – Arsène Wenger.
What is Mesut missing exactly? His passing and shooting numbers seem normal compared to his previous three seasons at the Emirates and, contrary to incessant rhetoric about his perceived lack of work ethic, is among team leaders in distance covered and has consistently improved his defensive contributions by the season. However, when you deeper look into his stats as well as apparent adjustments in team setup this season, you can understand why Özil’s performances have faded.
In the 2015/16 season, virtually every significant Arsenal attack ran through Özil as he racked up a Premier League-record 146 chances created, league-leading 19 assists and 42 through balls. The emphasis was clear as Özil dominated the ball, tasked with finding his outliers out wide, and drawing enough defensive attention with his dribbling so Olivier Giroud could get that extra space needed to latch on to a chance. This especially was the case when midfield maestro, Santi Cazorla, was injured as he world have to collect the ball in deeper positions essentially acting as both a deep-lying playmaker and prototypical number 10 all in one. He led Arsenal and finished third in the EPL with 2,963 touches in 2015/16, with only Bournemouth defender, Simon Francis and Chelsea midfielder, Cesc Fàbregas recording more.
This campaign, the focal point of the team has arguably shifted with Sanchez’s move to centre forward as the Chilean operates as a false nine of sorts, roaming around to collect passes and draw attention to allow the flanks and Özil himself to push forwards. As a result, the German benefitted in the goal-scoring department, at least early on, scoring nine times in all competitions before the midway point of the season and capitalising on all the space he was getting as a result of Sanchez soaking up pressure.
However, this shift in tactic also means that Sanchez has become the creative centerpiece in the XI, especially with Cazorla out again through a long-term injury, as he leads the league by far and away with 36 through balls (Özil has just 13) and has as many key passes this season at the World Cup winning midfielder (55). Sanchez also has twice as many assists (eight) to Özil’s four and has had just 130 fewer touches of the ball than his teammate.
Though Özil showed positive signs to his adjusted role, his performances were still somewhat average compared to those we saw from the second half of the 2014/15 season until the end of last. His outings in big games have especially been underwhelming. Last season against the EPL’s top six, Özil had two goals and seven assists in ten games, with particularly strong home outings against Manchester City, Manchester United, and Tottenham. So far this season, Ozil’s lone bit of end product against top six opposition (five games) was his volley in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Chelsea in September. His overall willingness to take on players is also less evident as he’s averaging less than a dribble a game, far below his normal averages since making the red side of London his home and perhaps an indicator of the aforementioned lack of confidence his manager eluded to.
This again has had many wondering whether Özil is worth the big bump in wages he’s looking for. His talent and ability to dictate say yes without hesitation, but a lack of consistency hampers his argument to some degree, much like in 2013/14 when some Arsenal fans wondered aloud what the fuss was all about following his from Real Madrid after a number of so-so outings.
Özil himself has made it clear that he is waiting to see what Wenger decides regarding his future at the club before pledging his own. But if Arsenal are to rescue what’s left of a season gone from promising to perilous in a two-month span – standing 10 points behind Chelsea at the top of the EPL and facing familiar obstacle, Bayern Munich, in the last 16 of the Champions League – Ozil has to regain the belief and execution that made him Europe’s best play maker. Doing so would give himself added leverage in contract negotiations with the club also.
Avatar Eyes needs to be otherworldly again in order see his club through their most crucial stretch of the season or else they will be alien to trophy-winning success yet again.