Are Özil’s days numbered? Should they be?

  • Continuous omission by “tactical” reason bad sign for Özil’s future
  • A mis-fit to Emery’s tactics
  • Sacrifice the queen

How valuable is Mesut Özil to Arsenal – to Unai Emery – really?

Özil’s place on the fringes of the Arsenal starting lineup is evident in his relocation to the bench in this weekend’s loss against Man United in the FA Cup, last weekend’s important win against Chelsea and his complete omission from the squad against West Ham the week before that. It exemplifies Emery’s ruthlessness and pragmatism, and the tactical mis-fit of Arsenal’s brightest star.

The Spaniard hasn’t been afraid to be honest when grilled about Özil’s disappearance by confused reporters through the season, in which the German has been completely secluded from seven match-day squads that injuries can’t account for (excluding Europa League). Omission by “tactical” reasoning has been Emery’s answer.

“Some matches we need different things tactically and individually. It’s not only for him (Özil).

“The most important thing for me is the commitment and they are every player with the commitment. And then when I decide they are not to play because of a tactical decision, it’s with him and another.

“If you are asking this is different because one is with more salary and the other is less salary, for me it’s the same,” Emery said in December, not long after Özil was dropped for “tactical” reasons against Tottenham in the Carabao Cup.

More recently, he said, “This team can play with Mesut and find this [best] performance and play without Mesut and find the same performance.”

The Spaniard admits he isn’t reliant on the playmaker every week and suggests Özil isn’t ticking enough boxes tactically, as well as questioning his “commitment”. And he’s correct.

Covers ground but too little defensive substance

Omitting Özil against the top teams makes sense: Emery’s tactics rely more on physicality  and all-rounded midfielders that can attack and defend through high pressing, where the forwards and midfielders have more defensive responsibilities than during Arséne Wenger’s tenure; these are Mesut’s biggest weaknesses. And the stronger the opposition, the more valuable these attributes become. Although Aubameyang isn’t a great defender either, his pace constantly puts pressure on the opposition. This is true, in a slightly lesser extent, for Iwobi as well, who has featured regularly against top teams this season.

Emery also wants his team to attack in a higher tempo, often counter-attacking with Aubameyang up top. Özil, as seen when he came on late against Man United, often slows things down to find the perfect pass. That’s great against weaker, defensive sides, but not in this system against the better teams.

Özil averages a good “distance covered” record, between 10.9 to 10.4 in his five and a half years at Arsenal, but it’s often without much end result.

Özil has only made 0.6 tackles and 0.1 interceptions per match in the Premier League this season, according to WhoScored. Throughout last season these numbers were 0.8 and 0.5, which is still low. In comparison, Guendouzi tracks 1.9 and 1.1 this season. And Man City’s David Silva, Özil’s playmaker nemesis, has recorded 0.7 and 0.7 respectively.

More worryingly though, his main pride, his trademark “key passes” stat is rapidly declining. Since joining Arsenal in 2014, Özil has contributed 3.1, 4.2, 3 and 3.2 key passes per match, per season in the Premier League. So far this season, it’s at 1.8.

A drastic fall like this isn’t so much that Özil’s ability to create chances has shrunk but that he isn’t utilised like once was, like the specialist playmaker that he is. He’s a victim of a new tactical environment that doesn’t value his special skills as much.

But then there are matches like West Ham away, when Arsenal, despite being down 1-0 and the Hammers not playing particularly well, couldn’t create any decent scoring chances in the last 20-25 minutes. Surely Özil, who wasn’t even included in the match-day squad, had some value here?

There’s no denying Özil’s impressive capabilities in his preferred role, a number ten that dictates the play with heaps of creative freedom, but it seems clear that Emery isn’t interested in making this compromise – even for the highest earner at the club.

Emery prefers all-rounded midfielders that can “do it all”, suggested by Arsenal’s summer transfer window in which they signed players like Guendouzi and Torreira, in addition to his fondness of ever-versatile Maitland-Niles.

Sacrificing the queen

If Özil isn’t playing against better, nor weaker, teams, because he doesn’t fit Emery’s tactics and live up to his defensive expectations, then there’s no point in having his £350,000-a-week talents undermined on the bench.

The players are pieces on a chess board and Emery is the visionary looking down. Emery has to do what he thinks is right so that Arsenal are the last man standing. In this case, sacrificing Özil, the brilliant queen, is the right thing to do to create his vision of what Arsenal should be.

The potential money relieved in wages (excluding purchasing price), a section of the club’s finances that has inflated to such an extent it’s become a problem with FFP regulations, could facilitate seven Torreiras or two and a half Bellerins or Lacazettes.

It’s clear Emery doesn’t want to build a team around Özil, like Wenger did, and the Spaniard’s preference to well-rounded midfielders, to avoid building teams around individuals, suggests selling the World Cup winner is the best solution, as he’s unlikely to improve his defensive contribution very much.

The fact that his name is selling a lot of shirts every season (fifth most in the world as of October 2017) might not be such a great financial incentive if he isn’t playing every week either.

Özil’s high wage demands made Arsenal choose between him and Alexis a year ago, now it seems the club – and Özil – have flown too close to the sun.

That all being said, selling a 30-year-old on £350,000 wages and two and a half years remaining on his contract will be nothing but easy.

Twitter: AFCAndersen

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