27 November 2013

A defense of Özil

In the wake of the 2-0 win over Marseille, conversation has focused on two subjects—the brilliant performance of Jack Wilshere, and the apparently abysmal failure of Mesut Özil, highlighted by two glaring miscues that have put him, rather unfairly in my opinion, under a microscope. The more infamous of the two, his missed spot-kick, has
highlighted a dip in his performance that has had some baying for him to be benched to teach him a lesson. Before we rush to judgment, let's put this all in context.

When he was at Real Madrid, he played for a high-scoring side that could, when the occasion arose, simply overwhelm opponents with its attacking options. What's more, he could linger below the radar, lurking in the shadows cast by other, larger-than-life personalities, be they players or managers. Whatever he did or didn't do would be overshadowed by the klieg-lights of Ronaldo or Mourinho or, to a lesser extent, Casillas or Benzema. He's come to Arsenal having shattered the club's transfer-fee record nearly three times over and may already be its most-famous current player. As just one barometer, he has 4.3 million followers on twitter—five times as many as the talismanic Jack Wilshere. Along the way, he's been anointed as the player who will lead the club to its first silverware in almost a decade. The transition from second-fiddle to lead-role is a monumental jump, one that lesser performers would balk at or wilt under. Özil may have faltered on Tuesday, and he may have frustrated our expectations, but, for the love of Pete, calm down. Take a breath. He'll be fine.

Despite this apparent dip in form, he's still second in the Prem in assists with four, and he's first in the club with seven overall. If anything, his early form flattered him a bit as he tallied those four assists in his first five appearances and then followed that with three goals in three matches. No one can keep up that pace. No one. To follow that with a seven-match stretch with only one assist naturally brings out the boo-birds, those who are quick to find fault and only grudgingly acknowledge success. They're the same ones who brayed their satisfaction at Wilshere's first goal against Marseille but were then, ten minutes later, carping about our failure to score a second or a third goal. Honestly. Relax.

Of course, Özil did himself few favors in the first half, such as his shinning of Ramsey's beautifully lofted cross. Instead of his customary, balletic touch to bring the ball down, Özil looked like he had one foot sunk in quicksand as he tried to control the pass, and his look of regret afterwards did little to endear him. Indeed, his first half looked like one to forget, and sooner rather than later. According to whoscored.com, players start at 6.0 and can go up or down from there, depending on their performance. At the end of the first half, Özil earned a measly 6.15 and had little to show for his efforts other than that fluffed pass from Ramsey and, of course, the missed spot-kick.

Those situations are a no-win for the shooter. Make it, and everyone more or less shrugs, assuming that this was the inevitable outcome. Miss it, and you'll be known forevermore as The Man Who Missed a Penalty Kick. In this case, Özil didn't acquit himself well, with an odd run-in and tame shot that Mandanda, with the advantage of being a country-mile off his line before the kick, parried well. Even if Özil had put more on it or placed it more precisely, Mandanda guessed right and probably would have saved anyway. The shot was no better or worse than any of the spot-kicks against West Brom. Yes, it would have been nice if he had slotted home. Last I checked, we won anyway. What's more, I'm pretty sure he's not the first high-profile Gunner to miss a spot-kick.

He's still adjusting to the Prem and to his role with Arsenal. His teammates are still figuring him out. During this feeling-out, we've built him up to be a savior, a messiah, a god. He's none of those. He's a man. He's an elusive, exquisite player, but his style is periods of low-key quiet punctuated by moments of sheer brilliance. This is bound to frustrate the faithful, especially when contrasted with the highlight-reel of Wilshere's goal as a counterpoint. Özil is more of a ghost, just as likely to disappear for certain stretches only to manifest suddenly and without warning—just as he did in the second half.

I mentioned earlier his whoscored.com rating—a mere 6.15. He finished the match at 7.53. Numbers like these, of course, only tell part of the story. Wherever he is on the pitch, he forces defenders to mind him. When they lose track, he can cause havoc. His assist on Wilshere's second goal was a vintage Arsenal moment for a man who's only been in the squad since September. He received a pass from Ramsey just outside the box and, without looking up, placed a perfect pass across the middle of the area for Wilshere to slot home. This was just one of five key passes Özil tallied on the evening.

That, more than anything, gets to the heart of Özil's conundrum. He doesn't deliver a finished product. His contribution depends heavily on his teammates' ability to finish. There have been several occasions when he delivered but a teammate failed to to finish. In time, he and his teammates will find a shared rhythm, one that takes full advantage of Özil's ability to put a ball where only a teammate can put that final, finishing touch to it. He's already offered tantalizing glimpses of what he's capable of. Given a bit more time together, those glimpses should only multiply in frequency. Instead of slagging a man for his failures, let's appreciate the man for what he's already delivered, keeping in mind that the best is yet to come.