Oscar Wood

Scoring in an Auba Wonderland

Things really are different at the Emirates this season. After his brace against Burnley on Saturday, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will be top of the Premier League scoring charts on Christmas day. Since Robin van Persie picked up his Golden Boot in 2012 and moved up the M1 to Manchester, Arsenal involvement in the race to be top scorer has been rare. By this stage of 2016/17 Alexis Sánchez had 12 goals, and he finished with an impressive 24, but in a particularly high scoring season, he was only able to finish third overall. That is the only time in the last six full seasons that an Arsenal player has found the net more than 16 times in a league campaign. 

For Aubameyang, however, such a position is not a new feeling. This is a player who, in his last full season in Germany, not only won the cannon award for top scorer in a closely fought race with Robert Lewandowski, but also scored more goals in a single Bundesliga season than anyone since the 1977. Last season he played for two struggling teams whose managers didn't last past May, and his campaign was impacted by the January transfer, but he still managed to score 23 league goals. 

Despite this, however, it actually feels like Aubameyang is somehow underrated, or overlooked, when it comes to the Premier League’s standout players. Even amongst Arsenal fans there sometimes doesn’t seem to be a full recognition of the fact Arsenal have one of world football’s most prolific goal scorers, who isn’t injury prone, a luxury they’ve arguably only had for a single season since Thierry Henry left the club. 

I think Aubameyang ins't helped by his style of play in this regard. His lack of involvement in general play means he rarely stands out in matches, even when he scores. His repertoire of eye-catching goals has actually been better this season than in his time at Borussia Dortmund, but a significant proportion of his goals still look relatively simple and aren't very memorable. It’s not an exaggeration to say that many of his goal celebrations are more spectacular than the goals themselves.

Arsenal more than most clubs have come to appreciate strikers for more than just scoring. Thierry Henry was arguably responsible for helping to change how strikers are viewed in England, thanks to his selflessness in setting up others and amazing all-round dribbling and passing skills. Like Henry, Robin van Persie evolved from a wide man or support striker to a genuine centre forward, while maintaining his top class technique and link up skills. When he became only the second Arsenal striker of the last ten years to score 20 league goals, Alexis Sánchez was still near the top of the league in chances created, through balls and dribbles. Even Olivier Giroud was defended for not being the most prolific striker around because of his perceived ability to bring others into play.

This combines to mean that on a match to match basis, Aubameyang rarely has single performances that are considered particularly impressive. He has four games this season where he scored a brace, yet hasn’t won a man of the match award in the Premier League this term. Sure, the goals at Fulham came when the contest had already been decided, but his goals in the other three were decisive, yet the general consensus afterwards was that there had been better performers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. People’s idea of a man of the match display is a complete performance rather than one or two decisive moments. It does, however, show how such a player can go a bit unnoticed. Consistency can sometimes be overlooked at the hands of the spectacular.

Describing what it is that Aubameyang does so well can be both straightforward and quite difficult. His goals speak for themself, but attribute wise it’s harder to explain what makes him so good. He’s not a link up striker and he’s not very good at creating his own shots off the dribble. People often describe poachers like him as clinical finishers, but this hasn't been the case for most of his career. In has last six months at Dortmund he scored just ten goals from almost 14 expected goals in the Bundesliga. This season he’s been efficient in front of goal but has still missed some big chances, like in the 1-1 draw against Wolves or the 2-2 at Old Trafford. His strength is essentially getting on the end of chances. At Dortmund he got on the end of chances more than almost any other player in the world and the goals naturally followed. He’s a similar player to Edinson Cavani in many ways. He can have misses that look sloppy, but his movement allows him to keep churning out good chances, and his fitness and durability allow him to keep getting on the park and produce big numbers over a season.

More to come

Despite him sitting at the top of the Premier League scoring charts, it's clear Arsenal are yet to fully get the best out of Aubameyang. This could either be viewed as a concern - what happens when he goes on a finishing slump? - or as something to be encouraged by - if he’s top scorer now, what could he do if Arsenal managed to eek out even more from him? His non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes figure is currently 0.51, 5th highest in the league. But that pales in comparison to his last 30 months in Dortmund, where the figure was 0.9, one of the absolute highest in Europe. 

His period of elite output in Germany can kind of be broken into two parts. In 15/16 Dortmund were one of the strongest teams in Europe, with a balanced and cohesive midfield and attack able to consistently create all types of chances. Their off ball movement and creativity meant they were regularly able to get in behind opposition defences and all of the front three scored multiple tap ins. After that season key players were sold and injury ruled Marco Reus out for most of Aubameyang's final 18 months in Germany. The team suffered significantly but it only increased their dependence on their star striker. 

Aubameyang formed a brilliant partnership with 19 year old Ousmane Dembélé. The winger assisted 10 of his 29 non-penalty league goals in 16/17. Dembélé is a player who can assist all types of goals, but his trademark assist that season became the low cross to Aubameyang. He had the ability to manufacture space on the wing with his speed, dribbling and two footedness and send low curling crosses to Aubameyang in behind the defence (see 1:20, 1:40, 4:00 and 5:30 on the video below). This is one of the most effective ways Aubameyang utilises his pace. When a wide player gets the ball behind, or even just close to inline with the defensive line, they can play the ball behind the defensive line and Aubameyang has the speed to reach what the defenders and most other forwards in the world can’t. The finish is simple but most players don’t have the athleticism to reach the number of balls he does with his slide tackle esque tap in. 

A winger of Dembélé’s ability makes creating these situations relatively straightforward. Their individual skill allows them to beat a fullback and deliver the killer ball. This isn’t a luxury Arsenal have had since Aubameyang’s arrival, however. Teams without high level one v one players have to rely on good movement and combinations to get into the areas where they can play dangerous passes across goal. Arsenal’s lack of true wingers has been well documented, and as such their route to providing him with such chances has inevitably fallen to the fullbacks. In the early stages of the season Hector Bellerin was Aubameyang’s best route to getting big chances, and since his return from injury and Arsenal's increased use of a back three, Saed Kolasinac has become the Gunners’ chief creator. Here’s a breakdown of the chances created for Aubameyang in the league so far this season: 

Aubameyang chance providers.png

While it’s not a surprise that without genuine wingers, Aubameyang has relied on fullbacks for service, it is perhaps concerning that the other attacking players have been responsible for such a small proportion of the big chances he has got on the end of. Only Ramsey has been able to set up multiple chances of decent quality for him, and although Ramsey's assist total is inflated, his xA (expected assists) on passes for Aubameyang in the limited number of minutes they’ve played together is fine. 

I made a graphic showing the chances that have been created for Aubameyang this season and colour coded it by who created the chance. As you can see the majority of chances in the danger zone were created by either Bellerin or Kolasinac. Other than the chance Iwobi created against Chelsea, there's no other openings from the half spaces. 

Aubameyang chances recieved map.png

Most concerning is the lack of significant chances created by Özil and Mkhitaryan. Other than the one assist against Leicester, Özil hasn't been able to find Aubameyang on the end of moves, though he was instrumental in both his first goals against Leicester and Burnley with brilliant pre-assists. Özil did create some good chances for Aubameyang in the few matches they played together last season, which suggests the problem is more down to the Özil specific issues this season rather than a lack of compatibility between the pair. Mkhitaryan enjoyed a fine partnership with Auba in Germany and assisted two of his first three goals for the club, but since then it’s been slim pickings. 

The reality is Arsenal lack a brilliant one v one winger like Leroy Sane who would help get the most out of Aubameyang, and that has to be the focus on the attacking front in future transfer windows. But that doesn't mean the current attacking midfielders can't contribute more. They have the capabilities to be doing more on the creative side, whether it be playing incisive through balls or getting into the half spaces and finding accurate cutbacks. If Aubameyang is to get the goals needed for the Golden Boot and, much more importantly, if Arsenal are to get the goals needed to move back into the top four, both player and club will be hoping for, and relying on, getting more from their chief playmakers.  

Oscar Wood is a special contributor. Follow him on twitter @reunewal.

Understanding Emery Football And The Importance Of A Back Three

Special Contribution by Oscar Wood. Follow him on Twitter @Reunewal.


That's more like it. That’s what we've been waiting for. Sunday’s North London derby win didn't just give Arsenal their first landmark win of the new era, it also helped give us our clearest indication yet of what it is Unai Emery is trying to achieve on the pitch with this squad. Despite results so far this season being positive, it's hard to escape the feeling a performance such as this was needed for us to get a clear view of what a working Emery Arsenal team looks like.

I think one difficulty Emery has had since joining is that, compared to many of his Premier League compatriots right now, he isn’t as renowned for a particular style of play, nor is what he tries to get his teams doing considered innovative. When Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri arrived at their clubs they began implementing stylistic overhauls that could easily be observed while watching a single game or making cursory glance at the statistics. With Emery the changes have been more subtle. Arsenal have predominantly still lined up in a variation of 4-2-3-1, they still try to control the ball and build through the thirds and still rely on quick combination play to break teams down.

In fact it’s arguable Emery’s biggest impact so far hasn’t been tactical, it’s been in the physical conditioning of his players, which has helped allow an improved level of intensity on the pitch. Heavy pre-season training sessions and pre-match sessions taking place at kick-off time have clearly contributed to the fact Arsenal have never looked physically outmatched this season (something they often did in previous years) and probably goes someway to explaining their quite incredible second half record this season.

Possession Structure

All that doesn’t mean Emery hasn’t made his own tweaks, however. The most clear tactical shift Emery has made has been in Arsenal’s possession structure. While many modern coaches put an immense amount of focus on the first phase of build up (i.e. the goalkeeper and defenders moving the ball to the midfield) it’s easy to get the sense Arsene Wenger always considered it all a bit tedious. Wenger’s priority in build up was usually to move the ball forward as quickly as possible, to maximise the amount of time the attacking midfielders could spend on the ball in the opposition half.

Anam Hassan has talked extensively about how Wenger would ask his midfielders to push further up the pitch, in an attempt to discourage the opposition from pressing and instead pin them back. Needless to say, this was a high risk, high reward strategy. When it worked Arsenal’s best creative players where able to enjoy lots of the ball, but against stronger pressing opponents Arsenal would regularly come unstuck.

Emery’s play from the back (when using a back four, which he’s done for the majority of the season) is built around the two centre backs and two central midfielders. Probably the most distinctive feature of Emery’s time at Sevilla was his love for a solid double pivot. That trend has been continued at Arsenal. While Wenger liked a clear division of labour between his two central midfielders, often partnering a defensive minded player with a more attacking one like Aaron Ramsey, Emery likes his midfielders to share their buildup and defensive duties. Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi have been exclusively used in midfield in the Premier League and are all are comfortable acting as a single defensive midfielder. As such Arsenal will often rotate as to which midfielder drops in between the CBs during build up.

The counter to this use of the central midfielders is that the attacking midfielders are instructed to stay high and maintain the team’s shape, rather than dropping deep to help progress the ball themselves. Under Wenger it was common to see the likes of Mesut Özil, and other attacking midfielders, dropping deep, and a midfielder like Ramsey running forward into the vacated space. Such midfield rotations have become effectively extinct under Emery. While pass maps have significant limitations - mainly because they only show a player’s average touch position, not their off ball position - the Arsenal one against Liverpool nicely outlines a typical structure in Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1. There is a clear divide between the central midfielders and attacking midfielders and the fullbacks are getting on the ball in advanced areas.

Arsenal passmap v Liverpool.jpg

So far the results of this more meticulous build up play have been mixed. While Arsenal have scored plenty of goals, for most of the season they’ve had the majority of their success in brief spells of dominance, rather than as a constant threat. The odd beautiful goal and five minutes of brilliance has often been preluded with a period where the team has looked ponderous. In fact, one potential reason Arsenal have been so much better in second halves might be that it’s when they’ve released the handbrake, to borrow a Wengerism, and played with greater urgency and freedom that they’ve found their attacking grove.

There have been moments, however, where Arsenal have executed what we might begin to associate as trademark Emery Arsenal. If Wenger football was about getting into opposition territory as quickly as possible then perfect Emery football might be the opposite; a precise build up leading to a fast transition once the ball is played into one of the attackers. The fantastic team goals against Fulham and Leicester are examples, as is this move against Liverpool, where the goalkeeper, both centre backs and both central midfielders are involved.

Aggressive Pressing

Arsenal fans were understandably excited when Unai Emery promised protagonism with and without the ball, and a desire for intensity in pressing. But so far this season Arsenal haven’t show signs of being a particularly aggressive pressing side. This may be down to Emery not believing the squad were ready to successfully implement a very aggressive press, and that there were other issues that needed attention first. Or it could be that he knows what fans like to hear and wanted to start on the good side of Arsenal’s supporters, regardless of his plans for the team.

On Sunday, however, Arsenal put in their most aggressive, and most impressive, pressing performance of the season. That this correlated with Arsenal’s best start to a Premier League match under Emery is likely no coincidence.

Analysing or measuring a press is difficult, because what you’re attempting to analyse is the impact on the opposition rather than something purely to do with your own team, and it can be hard to separate your team’s influence from their own game plan. For example one such measure is the opposition pass accuracy, but when it comes to opponents like Cardiff, who almost always have a poor pass accuracy, it’s hard to argue Arsenal did something specifically that prevented them completing passes. The best measure is probably the number of opposition passes played per Arsenal defensive action (PPDA). This essentially gives you a value for the number of passes a team was able to put together before being engaged in a tackle, interception or foul. Against Tottenham Arsenal recorded their joint lowest PPDA of the season (5.43) meaning Tottenham were rarely able to string long passing sequences together before being engaged by Arsenal pressure.

Arsenal PPDA.png

At 72%, Tottenham also recorded the fifth lowest pass accuracy by any of Arsenal’s 14 opponents this season, and the lowest of anyone currently in the top half. Both Spurs CBs, and Eric Dier, recorded pass accuracies in the 60s, and were regularly forced into hitting harmless long balls up the field instead of building play from the back how they’d like.

Vertonghena and Dier passing.jpg

Regardless of the level of pressure it’s clear one of the hallmarks of Emery’s philosophy is a high work rate and intensity in his team’s play (Arsenal have regularly been at the forefront of most running stats this season). Sunday showed that, at the right moments, that philosophy can go one step further and be used to implement aggressive and successful pressing plans as well. It’s here where Arsenal can also benefit from the depths of their squad. Whether Emery planned to make a double substitution as early as half time is debatable, but it’s likely Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were went out in the first half with the knowledge they wouldn’t be playing the full 90 minutes, and could thus play above and beyond while they were on the pitch.

Could A Three At The Back Kill Two Birds With One Stone For Arsenal?

Much of the Arsenal discourse in the last couple of months has centred around the impact of Lucas Torreira, and how he’s helped make Arsenal a much more resilient and solid side. While the Uruguayan himself has played at a fine level since becoming a regular starter, the transformative nature of his arrival has perhaps been a bit overstated. Arsenal are still conceding chances. The 18 goals against in 14 matches isn’t itself a particularly good figure, and it could’ve been worse if not for some fine goalkeeping performances from Bernd Leno. The nature of these chances has also been of concern. Before the trip to Bournemouth Arsenal had faced the joint most counter attack shots in the division, along with West Ham and Manchester United. The match against Wolves before the international break showcased the worst of it. The visitors took the lead following a fast break on a turnover, and had multiple chances to add a second on transition.

Arsenal’s opponents have attacked down the middle less this season, 24% of the time compared to 27% last term, which suggests Arsenal’s double pivot might be doing a better job of blocking the middle of the pitch. But this has been counted with a more attacking use of the fullbacks. Arsenal have been particularly vulnerable down the left at times this season. They’ve tended to have a bias towards that side while attacking, mainly because the left footers Xhaka and Özil are more comfortable passing to their left and operating in those zones, which means the players on the left have to push further up the pitch. Given the defenders on the left - Xhaka and Monreal or Kolasinac - are not as athletic as the ones on the right - Bellerin and Torreira - this can be a problem. It’s also possible that, despite clearly not being the player he once was last season, Laurent Koscielny was still an improvement in defence over Sokratis and Rob Holding, and that the change in CB pairing has mitigated the improved defensive performance in Arsenal’s midfield.

Three at the back could help both this problems. Having three players allows the wing backs to get forward the way Emery likes, and allows an extra body to help defend the channels in transition. Additionally simply having three centre backs could also help to somewhat mitigate the fact they’re not of the highest individual level.

In the first 15 minutes at Bournemouth Arsenal seemed to be struggling with the system. Bournemouth attacked with a front four meaning Arsenal got pinned into a back five and struggled to get out with a lack of outlets. There also seemed to be an uncertainty amongst the back five about each others roles, what with Arsenal not having used the system since February. They were possibly fortunate that a marginal offside went their away in that period, but since then they have put in two of their best defensive displays this season. Against Bournemouth and Tottenham respectively, two of the best attacking sides in the league, Arsenal conceded just 0.5 and 0.25 expected goals against from open play.

In Attack

While three centre back formations naturally lead to a focus on the defensive structure and setup, they can also help create different attacking shapes. The most obvious being that, with two wing backs, there’s little need to true ‘wingers’, as seen against Bournemouth and the first half on Sunday, when Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were used in inside roles. This is where Wenger’s team benefited the most from the move to a back three. Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez and Aaron Ramsey were all able to be used in attacking positions behind the striker without sacrificing width or numbers defensively. Much has been made of Arsenal’s lack of genuine wingers, and while neither Hector Bellerin or Saed Kolasinac can take on players 1v1 the way a true wide forward could, they will at least maintain width and offer runs in behind.

On Sunday, Mauricio Pochettino opted for the midfield diamond that was so successful against Chelsea the week before, but this simply played into Arsenal's hands as the wing backs were afforded even more space. Bellerin was instrumental in Arsenal's possession play, completed the second most passes in the match and helped create the equaliser early in the second half. Kolasinac was the main creative force on the day, creating five chances. No one else from open play created more than two.

Kolasinac chances created.jpg

To start both fixtures, Emery opted for a clear 3-4-2-1, not a shape that will help get both Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette in the side. However, as his substations at half time on Sunday showed, reversing the attack from a 2-1 shape to a 1-2 is simple enough, and playing two strikers doesn’t sacrifice width or midfield numbers as much in a back three. I think Emery probably prefers a 3-4-2-1 to a 3-4-1-2, because he can maintain the two midfielders and two attacking midfielders shape we saw against Liverpool. But the second half against Tottenham proved that he’s happy to go the other way if he believes it’s the best way forward.

In fact, Emery deserves praise for the significant versatility he has shown in recent weeks. After almost exclusively playing 4-2-3-1 all season, from the second half against Wolves onwards, Emery has tried at least three different shapes. While we were having debates on the merits of results vs performances, Emery has tinkered, first with personnel, then with shape, in the knowledge Arsenal had a much greater level they could go to. Such awareness, when it would’ve been easy to stick with the same lineups while the wins were still coming, is a good thing. Only time will tell if these changes will actually pay off in the long term, but the early signs are positive.

Mesut Özil: Unai Emery’s conundrum


This is part two of a three part series on Mesut Ozil by Oscar Wood.

Yesterday we took a detailed dive on Özil’s 2017/18 season.

An interesting aspect of Mesut Özil is that while opinions of him are vulnerable to extreme fluctuations, his performance levels, and the statistical output he produces, are usually strikingly consistent. Such is the quality and repeatability of his core technical and mental attributes - ball control, passing, movement, decision making, vision - he rarely has an outright bad game, where he performs those aforementioned skills poorly (one rare example was actually the opening day against Manchester City, where his final third passing was a letdown). The most common reason for Özil having a mediocre game is usually external; when he’s put in a position where he can’t utilise his strengths and his weaknesses are exposed more. Usually this is when Arsenal struggle to get control of games and he simply doesn’t see as much of the ball as he’d like. In other words, it’s the age old cliche about how he can’t grab a game by the scruff of the neck, unless it’s there for the taking.

This isn’t an issue for him over a sustained period of matches. Or at least, it hasn’t been so far in his career. Of course, like any player, he goes through physical ups and downs as well, meaning sometimes he has better months than others. But, whereas others like Aaron Ramsey and Henrikh Mkhitaryan may often have games where their touch and weight of pass is off, with Özil you usually know what you're going to get. Often his supposed up and down periods are simply down to the nature of assists. The finish is beyond your control and there’ll be periods where the other forwards run hot and periods where they run cold. 

All this makes his start to the season all the more alarming. The Arsenal fanbase and wider football world has had many moments of doubt surrounding the German before, but it’s rare that a period of Özil scepticism has been matched with a significant drop off in his statistical performance as well. Arsenal’s number 10 is currently underperforming in virtually every metric, with his creativity and overall passing numbers significantly worse than last season. 

While, as mentioned earlier, Özil’s statistics have tended to stay consistent over medium term periods, and we are still very early in the season, the fact Arsenal have a new coach has exasperated fears that Özil’s recent performances could be the start of a new long term trend. Arguably most striking is the drop off in overall involvement. While days can happen where a player fails to create moments of spark, a lack of involvement in possession indicates potential systemic issues. In the Premier League so far this season Özil has completed just 31.1 passes per 90 minutes, less than half of his career high figure in 17/18. To put things into perspective, in a typical game last season only Xhaka would play more passes. This season only Lacazette, Aubameyang and Cech are attempting fewer.

Arsenal passing 17:18 and 18:19.jpg

So what factors could be behind Özil’s poor performances this season, and in particular, his lack of involvement compared to previous years? The most obvious change has been in his starting position. Emery has started Özil on the right in four of his five starts. Wenger, of course, almost always used Özil in a primarily central role, with only occasional spells on the wing, such as early in 14/15 and during the European run last season. From his number 10 position Özil had plenty of attacking freedom and regularly ventured to the wings anyway, but he also had responsibility to move towards the centre circle and offer himself in possession when both central midfielders were on the ball. Just look at the areas and volume of his passing on Sunday compared to when Everton came to the Emirates in February.

Özil passing v Everton.jpg

Özil arguably hasn't been helped by Arsenal’s left side bias in recent matches. In their last three games the Gunners have found progressing the ball up the left side of the pitch a lot easier than building through the right. One reason for this may be Granit Xhaka. Xhaka has usually been the dominant presence in possession, and as a left footer he’s more comfortable patrolling the left side of the pitch and circulating the ball to that side. It’s notable that despite nominally starting on the right, a lot of Özil’s involvement against Everton still came on the left wing. 

Arsenal left side bias.jpg

In fact, Xhaka’s preference for left sided passing, and Özil’s positioning on the right has significantly disrupted their on pitch relationship. While Xhaka didn’t have his best individual season last year, one thing he did do well was give the ball to Özil. Xhaka to Özil was regularly one of Arsenal’s most prolific pass combinations. The holding midfielder is usually Arsenal’s highest volume passer, and thus a lot of Arsenal’s attacks go through him. With so many of his passes going to Özil, it’s not a surprise the then number 11 followed him as Arsenal’s second most frequent passer in 17/18.

This season that relationship has broken off. On Sunday only 7 of Xhaka’s 82 completed passes found Özil, just under 9%. In the same fixture last season, which Arsenal won 5-1, 17 of Xhaka’s 73 went to Özil, 23%. Equally important is the location of their combinations. On Sunday the few times Xhaka did find Özil was when Özil made rare venues to the left wing. There were only a couple in the central areas of the pitch, while in the fixture last season, the majority came in those spaces. Without that direct exchange with Xhaka, the ball has to go through different routes to get to Arsenal’s number ten, and it’s not a surprise he's seeing a lot less of the ball.  

Xhaka to Özil.jpg

It’s likely that a simple change of putting Özil back into the centre will not only prevent him from being isolated on one wing, but will also help Arsenal’s build up play and overall balance in possession. The central midfielders will have easier forward pass options, as Özil is more comfortable receiving in the number ten space than Ramsey is. If Aubameyang were to continue on the left, then getting Özil on the ball frequently in central areas could help him to operate as more of an outlet. The irony of Arsenal’s current left side bias is that while their best playmaker feels isolated on the right, their best outlet and poacher in the box is regularly involved in build up on the touchline, far from goal, and is often having to put crosses in for others when ideally he’d be the one getting on the end of moves. In these last few matches the rare times Özil has moved away from his position on the right have been some of the rare times Arsenal have looked potent going forward. His role in the build up to Aubameyang’s goal at Cardiff is an example. 

Bellerin Özil Mkhitaryan.jpg

Against Chelsea and West Ham, Mkhitaryan was used on the right, with Özil central for one and absent for the other. Bellerin and Mkhitaryan enjoyed their partnership, and Arsenal did a lot more attacking down that wing in those two games. As @ThatGooner alluded to in his thread, Mkhitaryan likes to make runs behind into the channels, which creates space and allows a run for the right back to try and pick out. While Özil can make those kind of runs, it’s more of a change up option for him. He usually likes to come short and drift inside, and Bellerin hasn’t been able to build the same sort of partnership with him during build up, which has contributed to Arsenal's left side bias. 

Occasionally it'll be suggested that Özil’s form last autumn was down to him playing for a new contract, and that after securing a huge wage increase, he’s reached a comfort level that is hindering his motivation. That is a possibility. But it’s also a malicious accusation to throw at an elite athlete who has worked hard his whole life on improving his craft. His Europa League performances last season also show there's still hunger there beneath his usual solemn demeanour. Given his play style, Özil should still have more years to give to Arsenal at something close to peak level. If Arsenal are to play their best attacking football, if the Unai Emery era is to become a success, or if Arsenal simply want to avoid financial disaster, it’s imperative Emery finds a way to get more out of Arsenal's highest earner, and most gifted footballer. 

The most obvious reason that Özil has been shafted wide is because of Emery’s preference for using Ramsey as the number ten. In part three we’ll look at the difficulties of accommodating both Özil and Ramsey in the same team. 

Oscar is on Twitter @Reunewal. Follow him there.

Mesut Özil: Beyond the Narrative

mesut arsenal.jpg

This is part one of a three part series on Mesut Ozil by Special Contributor Oscar Wood

It has not been a good few months for Mesut Özil. His 2017/18 season finished disappointingly on a team level, with Arsenal’s elimination at the hands of Atletico Madrid in the Europea League. He then became part of a political storm in Germany when he and Ilkay Gündoğan posed for a photograph with Turkish president Erdoğan. What should’ve been a forgotten matter by the time of the World Cup reared back into focus after Germany’s earliest elimination in 72 years. The lack of support for Özil within the board and the negative press that surrounded the player, which regularly bordered on the extreme and had particularly sinister connotations in relation to the player’s national heritage, cumulated in one of the more shocking international retirements of recent memory. To make matters worse, the Arsenal man has had a particularly poor start to the season, just when supporters are hoping for an uptick in fortunes for the club. 

With all the negative attention that has surrounded the German in recent weeks and months, it has been easy to overlook something else. Something that might not be as obvious at the moment, but something that is just as important, if not more so, than anything else currently being said or written about the player. Mesut Özil is still Arsenal’s best player. At the moment, with him taking home a healthy £350,000 a week from the club, and his last top draw performance coming many months ago, people might scorn at the idea Arsenal’s new number ten is worthy of such a billing. But rewind eight or nine months and the narrative surrounding Özil was entirely different. With the negative energy of Arsenal fans predominantly focused on Alexis Sánchez it was easier to see the positive aspects of Özil’s play. The good will was only be helped by the building rumours of a new contract extension that cumulated with his renewal at the beginning of February. The road since has been more rocky. The burden that comes with such a wage hike started to bear heavy almost immediately, and the team overall have had few successes since their star man signed on. 

That can make it easy to forget just how important Özil is to Arsenal, and how good his performances were as recently as last season. Indeed, his 2017/18 season has become more underrated with time, thanks to recency bias and a combination of on pitch factors that meant he didn’t get quite the amount of recognition he could’ve done. In the Premier League he put in many of his best performances for the Gunners, was one of the Europa League's standout players in its latter stages, and was a consistent performer whenever he got on the field at the Emirates stadium. 

At face value, Özil’s eight Premier League assists represent a mediocre return for someone of his reputation as a creator. However, when it came to creating chances from open play, it was one of Özil’s best ever seasons. The 2.99 key passes per 90 minutes he played from non-set piece situations was the highest figure he’s had in a Premier League season, beating his previous best of 2.80 from 2015/16. One of the criticisms of the key pass stat (some call it chances created, they’re the same thing), and this isn’t without valid reason, is that it doesn’t take into account the quality of the chances created. Any pass that leads to a shot is one key pass, whether it’s a big chance, or a shot from 30 yards. But Özil’s expected assists per 90 figure was 0.38, which was the same figure as Kevin De Bruyne’s, who was widely cited as the league’s outstanding midfielder and creator last term. It was also higher than Özil's own figures in 14/15 and 16/17 figures (there’s no data for his 13/14 season) abut down on his astonishing 0.52 in 15/16. One thing which hurts his overall creative numbers is the fact he took fewer set pieces in 17/18. In 17/18 he averaged 3.2 corner takes and 0.9 free kick takes per 90 minutes. In 15/16 those figures were 4.3 and 1.3 respectively. His 16/17 figures were similar (they were slightly lower before that, Cazorla used to take quite a few). In other words he was taking one and a half fewer set pieces per match last season. Xhaka got three assists directly from corners last season, whereas in 16/17 he got none. Had Özil taken all the extra corners Xhaka took last season, his overall assist tally may have looked better. There isn’t open play only xA data publicly available unfortunately. But a significant reason why Özil’s xA per 90 in 15/16 (0.52) was better than his 17/18 figure (0.38) would’ve been those extra set pieces he took. 

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Özil’s impact doesn’t just come with the final ball, however. Last season he actually increased his already significant responsibility in Arsenal’s possession play, particularly during the part of the season when the Gunners operated with a back three. That formation left Arsenal with fewer ball playing midfielders, and Özil became a key facilitator for Aaron Ramsey to make his trademark forward runs and support the attack. In the Premier League he completed a career high 65.05 passes per 90 minutes and was one of the league's best when it came to progressing the ball up the pitch. At his peak during the season from October to the end of January, he would regularly start a passing move, keep up with the play, then lay off the final pass to finish the play, like in the clip below against Palace.

In the 2-2 draw against Chelsea, even Gary Neville was impressed by the way he took control of the match and dictated things for Arsenal. In that match he dominated possession in the final third. Özil was playing so many passes in dangerous areas of the pitch that he ended up playing 22 passes to Alexis, a remarkably high figure for a pass combinations between two forwards in a big game, which was bettered only by the 24 passes Xhaka played to Özil. 

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Özil v Chelsea .jpg

What didn’t help Özil’s cause is the perception surrounding his absences from the team in 2018. A back injury ended his club season after Arsenal’s Europa League tie with Atletico Madrid and seemed to disrupt his World Cup. Özil isn’t the only player to miss games through injury and illness, but with him there is definitely an impression that, at best, he misses games too easily, and, at worst, has excuses for him entirely fabricated so he can enjoy extra time off. When he misses games there are more tinfoil hat appearances on the Twittersphere than there are for perhaps any other player. We have to ask ourselves whether such attitudes to his absences are really fair. After missing the West Ham game Unai Emery became the third manager in recent years to excuse Özil from a game because of illness. What is more likely; three different managers deciding to give him special treatment, or him simply having a below average immune system? 

On face value Özil missed 12 league games, which isn’t great. However the majority of these came from February onwards, when Arsenal’s priorities shifted from domestic competition to their European run. He played every Europa League knockout game bar the Östersunds home tie, and was a standout player in the competition (only in the Atletico away match did he fail to put in a high quality performance). In other words, there were essentially just five games Özil missed that were important to Arsenal’s season. In the Premier League and Europa league knockout stage, the important fixtures in Arsenal's season, Özil played the fourth most minutes for Arsenal, more than the likes of Lacazette, Monreal, Ramsey and Koscielny. Missing sporadic games here and there also looks bad because of the number of different no shows, but when almost all the absences are short the collective damage is minor. Missing three one off games through illness is certainly no worse than missing five weeks with a muscle strain. 

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Of course, not even Özil’s biggest detractors will argue he’s incapable of doing useful things on a football pitch. The debate has always been about whether the trade offs of giving such a narrowly defined player great responsibility are worth it. Do you gain more than you lose? Özil is best used centrally rather than wide, but he can neither defend like a true midfielder, nor score like a true second striker. These traits make him something that is surprisingly common in the Arsenal squad; a player with a few elite skills who needs a fairly confined role in order to prosper to his full capabilities (I think Aubameyang and Ramsey fall into this category as well, somewhat). 

Arsene Wenger clearly felt the positives of building around Özil outweighed the negatives and gave him significant freedom and responsibility to be an on pitch leader for Arsenal. Sometimes it paid off, sometimes it didn’t. Unai Emery has up till now used him in a more periphery role, which has so far failed to produce anything like Özil’s top form. But it has arguably hurt Arsenal’s overall attack as well. As of yet, the Gunners have been able to find consistent fluency without their number ten at the heartbeat of things. After a season of under appreciated heights in 2017/18, 

it would be a shame if Özil’s best performances were to become purely a thing of the past under Unai Emery. 

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the beginnings of Özil’s 2018/19 season, and why the German has so far struggled under Unai Emery.

Oscar is on Twitter @Reunewal. Follow him there.