11 February 2014

Man U Preview: Özil shall rise...

Those still lingering morosely in the aftermath of Saturday's loss are predicting, glumly and pessimistically, that such a loss foretells the end of our title run, suggesting that we will fade from the race and stumble into a squabble for fourth place with none other than the very team that destroyed us. A target of particular ire—or at least doubt—has been Mesut Özil, who, let's face it, has been off his game recently. He's had a solitary assist since Christmas, a span of seven matches, and that laconic ghosting of his has more than occasionally resembled apathy or diffidence. Making matters worse, he played the wrong role in two goals at Anfield, inviting further derision.

However, calls for him to be dropped strike be as a bit premature. He is, after all, still one of the best players in the world, if not in the squad, and we're going to see him revive the early season form that had us lionizing him and making wallpapers and buying kits with his name splashed across the back. He suffers from a few factors, three of which I'll delve into briefly...

Stats
Simply put, the statistics he generated with Real Madrid are not replicable outside of that set-up. Real Madrid played a swift and devastating counter-attack that offered Özil and others more clear-cut chances on the break than does our more possession-oriented style, which can frequently push opponents back into their own box as we pass around the edges. Perhaps more to the point, Özil was able to rely on the assassin-esque finishing of Ronaldo, quite possible one of this generations best scorers. By contrast, finishing has long been a sore spot 'round these parts. The combination of those two factors—fewer clear-cut chances and poor finishing—go a long way to explaining the gap between Özil's stats this season and in seasons past.

Pressure
By nearly tripling Arsenal's previous record for a signing, massive pressure heaped on Özil as many of us dreamed (and rightly so, given the point made above) that Özil would deliver one key pass after another, assist after assist, as he eviscerated defenses with his vision and his touch. To an extent, he's delivered, with a team-leading 2.8 key passes per game, good for third in the Prem behind David Silva and Luis Suarez (playing for teams that have scored 68 and 63 goals, respectively) and eight assists, good for second in the Prem behind Wayne Rooney. However, that doesn't seem like a return on our investment, especially in the last few months. The pressure of that reputation and that price-tag must be enormous, and even for an athlete of Özil's stature, living up to that can wear a man down. With each game that goes by without a goal, an assist, or jaw-dropping pass, that pressure builds while the confidence required to rise to it fades.

Adapting
This one comes in two parts. I'll get the obvious one out of the way: Özil is still adapting to the Prem's pace and physicality, to the lack of help offered by referees, to the schedule. La Liga takes a two-week break in late-December during which time we played four matches. This part has been covered, so I'm keeping it brief. We know (or should know) that adjusting to a new team, league, language, and so on will take time, and that some of our own best players needed a full season to adjust. Of course, in the middle of a tense title-chase, time feels far-more precious than it might otherwise.

The second part of the adaptation process falls on us, the fans. We expected Özil to come in and simply dominate games, flicking and slipping passes through impossibly tight spaces for teammates to simply tap in past befuddled defenders and mesmerized keepers. It's happened just often enough to stoke those fantasies. Further, he now suffers by comparison to players like Eden Hazard, who plays a similar position but an altogether different role. Give the ball to Hazard and he's going at defenders, taking them on the dribble, and having a shot. That's a much-larger part of his game than passing, and it grabs more attention than passing and off-the-ball movement.

That last bit—movement off the ball—is as much a part of Özil's game as the passing is. However, its impact is hardly noticeable, especially to the casual fan. After all, it doesn't command attention, isn't tallied as a stat, and, for those watching from home, may not even appear on the screen. Watch Özil. I mean, really watch him. Force yourself to ignore the ball if you can and just track Özil's movements along with the defenders' responses. At times, he will move away from the action, apparently, and drag a defender or two with him, both vacating and creating space for teammates to flow into and exploit. At other times, he will simply withdraw from the action as if to suggest that he is too tired to be involved. This might be the truth more often than we'd like. However, it's also a strategy. Withdrawing encourages the defender to let his guard down, to turn his head back towards the ball, and this allows Özil to slip away unmarked. Whether this give him space to receive a pass or to draw other defenders towards him, the offering is the same: room for teammates to run, pass, or dribble into.

Conclusion
As we prepare for Man U, then, both Özil and fans have to adjust. It's clear that Özil has to elevate his game, if not to the levels he displayed at Real Madrid, then to the levels we saw earlier in this season. Along the way, though, we have to adjust our understanding of his role. Against a Man U side that features a creaky defense that might be without Evans, Ferdinand, Jones, and with ageing players like Evra and Vidic, Carrick and Fletcher, Özil should find opportunities to work a bit of the magic that has been missing. Man U's defense looks shaky and slow; their entire squad looks defeated and dispirited.

I'll stop short of making any specific predictions for Özil's performance. After all, I just spent a good amount of time suggesting that a portion of his play doesn't show up in any statistical categories. However, I'm feeling good about the idea that he will help us to forget some of the lackluster performances of the last few weeks.

Right. Let's set aside the gloom and get ready to give Man U the greeting they deserve.