26 May 2014

Does Özil need a world-class striker, or can he create one?

This is a vital question for Arsenal as we go into the summer transfer-window. For as much as we spent on Özil, that could be money down the drain. By some standards, the man struggled in his first season in the Prem, enough so that there were accusations that we had wasted our money or, alternately, that he was unhappy with his role. Now it comes out from no less an authority than Philip Lahm, captain of the German national team, that Özil needs the right striker to get out of Özil what we paid to get. This begs the question that I've asked in the lead-in: does Özil need a world-class striker ahead of him, or can he create one?

First, let's get Lahm's comments front-and-center. Speaking to goal.com, Lahm had this to say:
Özil's "vision is probably the best I have ever seen, and that is why it is so important to have the right striker ahead of him. He is a dream for strikers and you saw that with [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Karim] Benzema when he was at Madrid. If Arsenal can find the right striker who is fast and makes intelligent runsthen Mesut will be devastating next season."
High praise, but with the caveat attached. On one hand, Özil is probably the best Lahm has ever seen, and he's played with a fair few good ones. However, as we've discussed here before, Özil's game is built largely around creating chances for others. Prior to joining Arsenal, after all, it was his creativity, as measured by assists, chances created, and key passes, that has forged his reputation as the most creative player in Europe. The rub there is that, for all of the chances created and key passes offered, the final product depends so much on the player on the other end of the pass that Özil's ratio of key passes to assists may suffer. A quick definition of terms, then:

  • assist: easy peas. A pass that leads to a teammate scoring.
  • key pass: A pass that gives a teammate an attempt on goal without scoring.
  • chances created: basically, assists plus key passes.
One would expect Özil, coming from the freer-scoring La Liga and playing with one of the world's most-lethal finishers, to see a sharp drop in his production. Olivier Giroud is not Ronaldo by any stretch, and the gap between Özil's assists and key passes should grow as he continues to find his teammates but they fail to finish. Indeed, Özil managed a mere nine assists for Arsenal, down from 13 for Real Madrid last year. Surely, this is because he's passing to Giroud, a Peugeot to Ronaldo's Rolls Royce?

No, Giroud is not in Ronaldo's class (who is?), but he might at least be in Benzema's (or is it the other way 'round?). He's not going to get the shots on-frame as often as Ronaldo does, and part of that derives from his own limits—but it might also derive from the role he's asked to play. We're not here to compare Giroud to anyone in any depth, though. We're here to examine Özil and the notion that his class depends on that of the teammate he passes to. If Lahm's comments above are on-target, we're not going to get our money's worth out of Özil unless we break the bank a second time to give him someone worthy of his key passes.

On the surface, that drop in assists does look dispiriting, if not altogether alarming. In his final season with Real, Özil delivered 78 key passes and 13 assists, meaning that 14.3% of his chances created led to a goal. In this past season, while adjusting to a new club, a new league, a new level of pressure, he needed 67 key passes to get 9 assists—a drop to 11.8%. It does seem as if Özil has suffered the incompetence of his striker a bit. How much of that drop, though, comes from the gap between Ronaldo and Giroud, and how much of it comes the first-season syndrome? That's an open question that no one can effectively answer, but it's worth considering.

The more-pertinent question is goes to the heart of Özil's role. Will he be content to continue threading beautiful, exquisite passes to teammates who can't quite finish, padding his personal key-pass statistic, or can he find a way to work with what he has? I'm not saying we shouldn't go after a world-class striker. I'm simply preparing myself for the possibility that we won't get one. As Özil sizes up his teammates next season, whether they are again Giroud and Sanogo or they are Cavani or whoever else we might sign. A player of Özil's class and calibre can, and should, elevate the games of those around him. Even without the addition of a top-drawer signing, I'm curious to see how Özil will do in his second season, understanding the Prem a bit more, but knowing how to get the most out of teammates like Giroud and Walcott and others.

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