Tuesday 12 December 2017

Evolution of Ozil is music to Wenger's ears

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game. Photo credit: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game. Photo credit: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Jonathan Liew

If you like jazz, there is a fair chance you will also like Mesut Ozil.

Arsenal 3 Swansea 2

There is a sort of syncopation to him, a subtle warping of time signatures.

Hector Bellerin of Arsenal shoots. Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Hector Bellerin of Arsenal shoots. Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Ozil is the sort of footballer who plays in the beats between the beats; the spaces between the spaces; a shear to the left or a lean to the right, a half-step ahead or a half-step behind.

Try to follow him and somehow he always eludes you. Try to predict his next move and somehow you always get it wrong.

This season, though, there has been something different about him.

In addition to his familiar and customary midfield noodlings, there has been the occasional, triumphant and emphatic flourish.

Theo Walcott of Arsenal is tackled by Jordi Amat of Swansea City. Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
Theo Walcott of Arsenal is tackled by Jordi Amat of Swansea City. Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

The towering header against Watford in August. The outrageous pick and roll against Chelsea in September.

And the scintillating first-time volley that ended up deciding the game here, like the cymbal crash at the end of a nine-minute instrumental. Welcome to Ozil 2.0, now with added goals.

The German's strike against Swansea was his third of the season. He has never scored more than six in an entire Premier League campaign.

Even more curious, given his record in recent years, is the fact that he has yet to register a single assist.

Whereas Ozil was once the conductor of attacks, he now finds himself at the start and end of them.

The first question is why might this be the case? His evolution from auxiliary to spearhead is one that has accelerated rapidly in recent weeks, and thus it is hard not to suspect that the absence of Olivier Giroud - or any sort of central target man - has something to do with it.

While Giroud rarely failed to deliver goals, it has become increasingly apparent that his mere presence was limiting Arsenal's attacking options.

Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott could switch and rotate to their hearts' content, but ultimately Giroud would always be the focal point.

With the French striker injured and the nimble Alex Iwobi replacing him, Arsenal now have a genuinely mobile, unpredictable front four.

And while Sanchez and Walcott have also been reaping the benefits, in the long term perhaps it is Ozil whose game will be most transformed.

He still drops deep to receive the ball, but he is now free to make late runs into the penalty area or sit on the shoulder of the last defender, spaces that would once have been occupied by Giroud or Lucas Perez.

In many ways, his role is more akin to that of second striker or No.10 than a conventional attacking midfielder.

Along the way, Arsenal have discovered that Ozil's familiar strengths - speed, anticipation, quick feet, an ability to find space in crowded areas - are equally useful inside the penalty area as outside it. And as Swansea found out, he really can shoot.

"When you see Ozil finishing, you think a little bit that he doesn't take his chances to shoot enough," said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

"When you see him in training, he scores basically when he wants. You speak with the goalkeepers, and he's one of the most difficult players to predict where he'll put the ball."

So now to the second, more interesting, question: What happens when Ozil (right) fully unlocks his goal-scoring potential?

"He is 28 today," Wenger said. "In the next four years, he has to add style and efficiency. Combine both.

"He always had fantastic style, fantastic efficiency in assists. But in his position, efficiency is also finishing, and he has that in the locker."

This is what makes Ozil's development all the more exciting for Arsenal supporters.

Midfielders who can contribute 15 goals a season are often the missing link between a title contender and a title winner.

Although Ozil is a different sort of player to Yaya Toure, Paul Scholes or Eden Hazard, he may care to note that all three of them ended up as champions.

Of course, Wenger was not going to make any rash predictions about the title at this stage.

"We are all conscious that we still have some things to improve in our game," he said. "We have to go a step higher."

For Swansea's new manager, Bob Bradley, a brave performance offered small but valuable consolation for the relegation battle ahead.

"We can't feel good about what happened," the American said after his team squandered several opportunities to claim an unlikely point following Granit Xhaka's red card with 20 minutes to go. "But it shows we are capable of becoming a good team."

Bradley saw his defence all but gift Theo Walcott a double to put the Gunners in charge before Sigurdsson robbed Xhaka of possession to halve the deficit before the interval.

Ozil's thunderous strike made it 3-1, but Swansea's record signing Borja Baston came off the bench to grab his first goal for the club.

Meanwhile, Wenger confirmed that Arsenal will not be appealing against Xhaka's red card.

Wenger said: "No (we will not appeal the decision). It looked harsh to me but it was a deliberate foul. It looked a 'dark yellow' but the referee went for bright red."

Wenger added: "What looked to be a comfortable afternoon finished in a very uncomfortable way. We just got over the line.

"I thought at times we played fantastic football, we lost a bit of our focus and after that, at 3-1, we could have conceded." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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