18 September 2014

No Özil, no problem: how to pick apart the Villans.

How short and selective our memories are. We get picked apart by a German side, and the chicken-littles run about mewling and moaning about how the sky is falling. Summon up another bogeyman, Aston Villa, and Gooners go skittering away, so afraid of shadows cast by the past they they can barely face up to the present. Yes, it seems like dark days, what with our patchy form, punctuated by a listless midweek loss. Have we set a record of some kind by being the first club to have ever lost at the Westfalenstadion? In a way, yes, in that it marked the first time in six trips to Germany that we've lost. However, at the risk of committing heresy, perhaps the problem at the moment is too much of Germany. Perhaps, it is time to rest Özil—for his sake as well as that of the squad.

For as much as has been made of his move wide-left in this new 4-1-4-1 "formation," the larger dilemma seems to be one of confidence. Wherever he starts on the pitch, Özil has the freedom to drift in—indeed, that's part of Arsène's putative plan, to create overloads and to stretch defenses out of shape—and drift Özil did against Dortmund, popping up in the middle and on the right. His "position" such as it is, matters less, then, than what he's doing and how well he's doing it. At the moment, sadly, he's not doing much, nor is he doing it all that well, and this bespeaks a player bereft of confidence.

It's not entirely his fault. A player who joins Real Madrid and then leaves incurs galactico-level transfer-fees. Özil's £42.5m transfer-fee obliterated the record set by Arshavin's  £15m-move. Along the way, of course, the expectations around Özil's impact skyrocketed far beyond his personality or playing style would otherwise prove. Simply put, he doesn't deliver the final product; he's only as good as the finishers he has in front of him. Without the early season form that Giroud and Ramsey showed last year, and with our best finisher this year in Alexis playing on the right, it's small wonder that Özil has floundered. Not only is he playing out of position, he's adjusting to playing alongside Welbeck, Alexis, and Wilshere, who themselves are adjusting to new roles and positions to boot. With a player like Özil, significant parts of his genius come from an intuitive sense of just knowing without thinking where his teammates will be, and the new formation and teammates—perhaps more than his own position—has blunted that.

Which brings us to Aston Villa. Thus far, they've impressed, scoring four goals while conceding just once en route to winning three and drawing once, good enough to sit just two points behind high-flying Chelsea. Yes, they've won against Stoke (0-1), drawn at home to Newcastle (0-0), and won at home against Hull (2-1) but they've also proven themselves to some extent with a 0-1 win at Anfield. They've done so with tight, stubborn defense and aggressive counter-attacks, with a second wave of set-piece attacks. Sadly, this strategy plays against Özil's strengths and exploits his weaknesses. Against such a compact defense and counter-attacking strategy, we may have to look to a midfielder who is willing to harass the back-four to win back the ball while also tracking back to deny those counter-attacks. Özil, the defensive dilettante, does not answer the call.

In his stead, even if we revert to the 4-2-3-1 formation, I hope we field a midfield that includes players willing, able, and inclined to harass, disrupt, and eviscerate. Özil needs a break, mentally, if not physically. Why not send out the Ox on the left? With Welbeck central, a midfield of Ox, Wilshere, Ramsey, and Alexis should offer the aggressive, harassing midfield that we might need against a hunkered-down defense such as we're likely to face against Villa. Özil is a magician, it's true, but he's at his best in a more-fluid, open match in which there's space to thread passes through and behind defenders. We're unlikely to see that against the Villans, but we are likely to see a squad looking for chances to hit us on the break—presenting chances for tacklers and ball-winners like Ox, Wilshere, and Ramsey to pounce, springing Welbeck and Alexis in the gaps that briefly open among the tighter spaces.

For all of its flaws, the 4-1-4-1 thrusts five attackers—seven, if you count the wide defenders—into the final third. Villa will likely counter this with a 4-5-1 formation, keeping eight or nine defenders behind the ball and hoping to spring Agbonlahor on a counter. At some level, I'd like to see us draw the Villans out a bit rather than packing them into the back. Concede possession a bit, let them pass it about in the middle third, and seize the advantage, hitting them hard on a counter of our own before they can park the bus. Ordinarily, this might be just the kind of strategy that would favor Özil's style of play, but it might be better to rest him, whether this be physical, emotional, or existential. Let the lad rest. Let us go out and win the match, sparing him the awkward comparisons to last season's start, and keep him fresh for the league-cup fixture against Southampton, where he might have a chance at picking apart a more-generous defense.

Let this not be the last time that defeat in Germany spur success in England.

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