30 April 2014

With Real Madrid through to the UCL final, is Bale > Özil?

Wow. That was a stunner. Defending a one-goal lead from the first leg, Real Madrid erupted for three goals before halftime on their way to a 0-4 win, devastating Bayern 0-5 on aggregate, thus closing the curtain in dramatic fashion on what was once a season for the ages. Long-gone, of course, is Bayern's assault on an invincible season; gone now as well is their attempt at repeating as winners of the Champions League. The question now becomes, are Real Madrid better with Gareth Bale instead of Mesut Özil? With Real Madrid through to their first Champions League final since 2002, it seems a fair question. Bale, after all, has managed the transition with aplomb, while Özil has sputtered, seeing his stats and stature fall short of expectations.

In 2012-13, Bale made 52 appearances, tallying 29 goals and 16 assists. He's on a similar pace thus far, with 41 appearances, 20 goals, and 19 assists, and he has four La Liga appearances left in which to add to that, not to mention the Champions League final. His switch from the modest environs of White Hart Lane to the klieg-lights of the Bernabeu has to be admitted as a success. Even if he hasn't quite lived up to the £87m price-tag, he has delivered. What's more, he didn't choose that price. It was affixed to him. At the other end, back in London (which is red, by the way), Özil has shown flashes but not sustained periods of the brilliance that led to our signing him for £42m. The interconnectedness of the deals—the sale of Özil financing the purchase of Bale—makes it well-nigh irresistible to compare their respective fortunes.

Özil seems to suffer by comparison. After all, he made 52 appearances last season, notching 10 goals and 24 assists while further burnishing his reputation as one of the best creative forces in the world. While Bale has apparently validated if not cemented his anointment as an attacker, Özil has seen his own reputation suffer a bit. After 42 appearances this season, he's managed just 7 goals and 16 assists, enduring accusations of being overrated and a waste of money, even to the point that some have wondered if he might leave Arsenal in the summer. It's true that, in our remaining three matches, he could very well explode for the three goals and eight assists that separate him from last season's haul, but would that be enough to dispel the doubts among the Arsenal faithful, not the mention the broader footballing world?

Furthermore, the trends also seem to flow in Bale's favor. Hindered by injury, Bale got off to an uneven start but has rounded into form. In the meantime, Real won the Copa del Rey thanks to a Bale wonder-goal, continue to contend in La Liga, and will appear in the Champions League finale. By contrast, Özil seemed to burst on the scene only to fade, get jaded, and fall to injury. Along the way, Arsenal tumbled from the top of the Prem and were dumped from the Champions League. Who's boosted his club's performance more? It's hard to argue against Bale on the evidence presented.

Therein lies the rub. I'm not sure that individual stats or even team performance tell the whole story, not until we consider the broader contexts of role and league. For the first, Bale plays as a forward whose primary responsibility is to score, and he does so for a club that looks like it will score 100 league goals and then some for the fifth consecutive season, a frequency that reduces the accomplishment to the banal. In that setting, to have not amassed 20 goals and 20 assists might have been a colossal disappointment. Of Real Madrid's 162 goals in all competitions, then, Bale has played a direct role in in 24% of them. Not bad. Not bad at all. Let's look at Özil for contrast. Playing most often as a central midfielder, he's less likely to rack up the stats that make for good headlines. He depends on others to finish the service he provides. Without pressing the issue, Giroud is not the best finisher in the Prem. Podolski is not Ronaldo. And so on. Arsenal have managed 91 goals in all competitions, a little more than half of Real Madrid's haul. Özil has had a hand in 25.2% of them. Where would that figure be with a more-clinical finisher somewhere along the front-line? With Walcott running in behind defenses? Try not to salivate.

I can't come through this all and say there's nothing in the comparison. There are only two areas in which Özil emerges as a clear winner over Bale, and these relate more to opportunity than they do to success, much as it pains me to say so. Those two areas are key passes and chances created. Bale averages 1.2 key passes per game; Özil, 2.9. With chances created, the story is much the same: Bale offers 1.4 to Özil's 2.88. While this doesn't do enough to clearly establish Özil as superior to Bale, it does highlight the more-subtle nature of Özil's game. To wit, Özil is less prolific a scorer than Bale, and part of that is to be expected given their roles and the leagues in which they play. If I can try to undermine my own comparison any further, it might come through pointing out that so much of Özil's contributions are intangible. Whereas Bale always (and exclusively?) poses a direct threat, Özil lurks and skulks. Even without the ball, he lures and lulls defenders, at times looking languid and disinterested, at others looking forlorn and frustrated. He disappears only to reappear. To borrow from Jürgen Klopp, Bale is heavy metal; Özil is orchestral. At times, he's a silent song. You have to listen to the notes he doesn't play just as much as you do to the notes he does play.

Of course, football is more than a 1v1 exercise. There are other players to account for. Referees. Managers. Come to think of it, maybe I should have gone with something more along the lines of "is Ancelotti > Mourinho?" Hm. Time will tell, perhaps as early as Wednesday. For now, credit Bale with handling his transition from the trenches of the Premier League to the somewhat softer La Liga. I hear that he dove well enough to make Ronaldo proud. Özil may not have dazzled in his own transition, but it's hard to pirouette or float when you have a Shawcross or an Adams or a Ramires hacking you six ways from Sunday, eight days a week.

Long story short, good for Bale for making good on leaving White Hart Lane. Let him not be the last to do so.