23 December 2013

The Enigma of Özil, as explained by Mourinho

This week finds your correspondent some 10,500 feet (3200m) up in the Rockie Mountains with a feeble internet connection, great views, and the threat of altitude sickness a sobering possibility—literally, as the last time I went above 10,000 feet, I got a touch of the stuff and couldn't summit the 14,000 Mt. Eolus. Apparently, one should not go from sea-level to 10,000 feet and consume whiskey at normal rates. Live and learn.

But I digress. This is not a personal diary. We're here to prepare for Monday's momentous clash against Chelsea, one that will either confirm throughout the ages that we will win the Prem or that we're absolute shite and might as well disband. These are the only two possible outcomes. Well, and drawing, but let's file that in under "absolute shite/disband" because, let's face it, there's been a bit of build-up around this one: we come in on the heels of two consecutive losses. We've fallen from the top of the table (gasp!). It's Chelsea, exhibit A in how to buy titles. Chelsea, who ended the Invinicibles' run to the 2004 Champions League. At Highbury, no less. It's Mourinho, whom Arsène has never beaten in nine tries.

However, I'm not a big fan of such historical comparisons. So many players have come and gone from each club that a reference to 2004 matters little. Even our most recent clash, a 2-0 loss in the league cup back in October, is not all that instructive as each club fielded a mixed XI. Therefore, while we can't separate the match from context completely, it's difficult to find a proper context. Had we faced off earlier in the season in the Prem, a direct comparison of form might be easier to make. We don't have that. It's not as if we go into the match completely blinded to the risks and possibilities, but the closest we might come might be to compare how we've each done against a particular opponent. There's too much algebra involved in that, not to mention, despite my opening declamations, too much whiskey. So much for living and learning.

One of the intriguing storylines is found in the Özil-Mourinho axis, as both men left Real Madrid and now find themselves pitted against each other. Speaking ahead of the match, Mourinho was effusive and warm in his praise of the playmaker:
I know his strong points. Not the weaknesses. I think I know how to try to stop him to be in the game (for) 90 minutes, with 90 minutes of direct influence. But it's impossible to stop him for 90 minutes, because these kind of players, they will have always a moment or a couple of moments where you cannot stop them and they end up showing why they are so good. To stop him completely, I don't believe we can.
I find myself surprised to be agreeing with the man. I think many of us saw the arrival of Özil as a defining moment, as Özil would slot in instantly and start delivering moment after breath-taking moment of exquisite football. The man himself fed that fire in his first appearance in Arsenal red, delivering a deft pass to Giroud against Sunderland. Many of us succumbed to the idea that we would be served a non-stop highlight-reel of similarly sublime passes, delicate dribbles, and dominating displays. That has not come to pass. Instead, there's been an apparently maddeningly string of lack-luster performances and diffident displays, punctutated only occasionally by a moment of gasp-inducing brilliance.

Such is the burden of said brilliance. We overlook, in our hunger, the notion that a player like Özil cannot come out and, for a full 90 minutes, dominate a game. Defenders swarm to Özil, sometimes two or even three at a time, when he has the ball. Without the ball, Özil is prone to disappearing, which some knock him for without realizing that this, in fact, is a strategy. Let the defense forget you, and openings appear. What's more, his game does not deliver end-products like Messi or Ronaldo; he offers service to others who finish—or don't, as is their skill or wont. Even the Messis and Ronaldos of the world offer stretches of hum-drum and then, suddenly, breathlessly, mesmerizingly, they deliver a moment of such reality-defying skill that one is left stupefied.

However, those moments come only a few times a match if they come at all. No player can deliver an historic goal or assist with each touch he gets. Come match-time, I'd be more than happy with Mourinho's suggestion that Özil will deliver "a moment or a couple of moments where you cannot stop" him. In matches such as this, Mourinho's brand of boring football has more often than not been enough to carry the day. In Özil, we may just have the kind of player who can unlock that approach, whether it's finding Walcott running in behind Azpilicueta or Cole or lofting a well-weighted set-piece cross in for Giroud or Mertesacker to nod home. Özil's been guilty of a few poor touches and, yes, he has faded late in matches. However, I'd still suggest that, on the balance, he's spruced things up just a bit since his arrival, and after a few quiet matches, might be ready to remind us all—including Mourinho—what he brings to the pitch.