Friday 20 April 2018

Arsenal need Cazorla-style solution to Ozil problem

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil shows his dejection after the final whistle at Anfield. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil shows his dejection after the final whistle at Anfield. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

Three seasons ago Arsenal had a player of undoubted talent and superb technical ability, whose deftness of touch was capable of creating chances for their strikers, but who was regularly accused of going missing in big games.

Then, against Manchester City in January 2015, Arsene Wenger stumbled upon the idea of moving Santi Cazorla into the centre of midfield. In a match where Arsenal were odds of 7/2 to win, the Spaniard ran the show and they cruised to a 2-0 victory.

Since then, Cazorla has been Arsenal's most important player, simply because they have nobody close to replacing him on the all-too-regular occasions he's injured.

"Of course, you always miss Cazorla," said Arsene Wenger after a 0-0 draw against Middlesbrough, which came days after the 6-0 destruction of Ludogorets last October in Cazorla's last game.

A month later, Wenger added: "He's important to our technical stability, to the quality of our decision making and to our build-up from deep midfield to the high midfield. That's an important stage because it gets the ball out from the defenders."

Qualities

And yet, with almost two transfer windows since passed, there's no sign of a replacement who can bring any of those qualities which Wenger recognised they would miss in Cazorla's absence.

Well, maybe there is one.

In terms of technical ability, decision making in possession and spotting a pass, even Mesut Ozil's critics would concede that he ticks the box on all three.

The problem, given Ozil's lack of desire to defend, is that Arsenal are practically playing with 10 men when they don't have the ball - but, at the moment, that's seven more than when they do have it.

Arsenal's first-choice central defenders are reasonable in possession, but, whether there's two or three of them, with the best will in the world they are still central defenders.

Outside of them, Hector Bellerin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are very fast, but again prove the theory that what the football gods give in pace, they take away in game intelligence.

Both could be effective if they had a player in the centre of the pitch who could keep the ball, but whatever combination of Mohamed Elneny, Granit Xhaka or Aaron Ramsey start in the engine room, there's no guarantee that the next touch after theirs will be another Arsenal player.

For the third consecutive game yesterday, Arsenal had reasonable possession and within seconds, their opponents had a goal.

In the first two games, it was Granit Xhaka who nearly cost them two points against Leicester and did cost them three against Stoke. Yesterday, Bellerin coughed it up twice which cost two goals while, with the midfield gone, Alexis Sanchez was wasteful, Liverpool broke and the inevitable happened for the second goal.

With Cazorla in possession, those in front of him know if they make a run there's a good chance they'll get the ball and an opportunity to do damage, with the likes of Ozil, Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette all capable of hurting opponents in different ways once they get near the final third. It's getting it there that, increasingly, is becoming a problem.

Mikel Arteta was never Xabi Alonso or Xavi, but always gave an option to build from the back and provided a link between defence and attack which at the moment is broken.

Ozil , as he tends to be, was a lightning rod for criticism against Stoke and again yesterday but, with what's behind him, there's as much chance of him getting a decent pass from which to create as there is of him getting a Nitelink in Dublin on a Tuesday.

For a man who is accused of never changing his tactics, Wenger has stumbled upon several variations over the years, usually in the last desperate weeks of the season, which has been good enough to either qualify for the Champions League or win an FA Cup.

Last year it was the back three which helped them save face at Wembley, while on that day against City in 2015, Francis Coquelin was trusted to anchor the midfield alongside Cazorla and Arsenal's form picked up.

Neither were obvious solutions, but the problem has been that what works in the final months of one season usually gets found out in the first few weeks of the next - as is already happening with the back three.

Wenger has never been afraid to try new things and while Ozil may take some convincing of that role, his boss could point out the views of Cazorla after settling into it.

"It's true I'm a bit further from the area, and can't give the same number of passes to goal or score goals myself, but I feel comfortable because I get a lot of touches of the ball," he said, which is exactly what Ozil needs, because, as it stands, neither he nor the team are working.

Punished

If Jurgen Klopp was drawing up a template for a team to play against, Arsenal would be it and, if they played every day for a week, there's every chance Liverpool would win 28-0.

The capitulation was unsurprising but with just three games gone, there's time for vast improvement even if Petr Cech's post-match assertion that they can still win the title seems wildly optimistic.

Obviously, Ozil isn't defensively minded, but adding the responsibility of being the team's lynchpin could lift the frustration which is growing both within and around him, while his ability on the ball would reduce the anxiety levels of his team-mates.

Wenger has produced changes over the years, but never, like Antonio Conte did last season, early enough for Arsenal to do anything other than firefight in the final weeks.

Ozil isn't the most obvious candidate to ride to the rescue, but then neither was Cazorla and even with all the money sloshing about in their bank account, and with a few days remaining of the transfer window, Arsenal are no nearer to finding a replacement.

They're not a club for drastic action but, seeing as they're all stuck with each other for the moment, - it might be time to look from within.

Irish Independent

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