14 October 2014

Thierry Henry, Mesut Özil, and the "La Liga" effect

The interlull is very nearly gone, and with it, any fears of fresh injuries to our precious, precious players. Germany face Ireland on Tuesday, but Özil came into the lull pre-injured as it were, and Per has retired from international duty. Oh, and Podolski. Well, maybe he'll get some time on the pitch. Poland face Scotland, but there's a bigger risk of Szcz seeing red than being felled, to be honest. From that, it seems like smooth sailing—almost too smooth if rumours around Welbeck not being injured, Giroud returning to fitness earlier than expected, and Walcott and Gnabry training with the first team are to be believed. Still, despite the bounty of good news, lingering in the back of my mind is Özil's apparent diffidence and ineffectual performance up until the interlull arrived. Set aside the 4-1-4-1, 'why's he playing wide?' whingeing. Don't blame Wenger or Özil; blame La Liga.

To begin with, I must admit a bit of bias, but one that is not entirely unfounded: La Liga is a two-club league. After Barcelona and Real Madrid, the fall-off in competitive quality is steep. With the notable exception provided by last year's Atlético Madrid, one can count on a 20- or 30-point gap between the two super-clubs and the rest of the league. Along the way, each club has averaged more than 100 goals per season, or almost three goals per game. In a league in which the next-highest scoring team is thrilled to average 1.8 goals per game, well, there's a certain inflationary issue that we have to consider. Simply put, playing for Real Madrid or Barcelona distorts a player's stats, and we at Arsenal have seen this cut both ways, first with Henry and again with Özil.

It's hardly an iron-clad law, as will attest the likes of Petit, Overmars, Hleb, and others, but there's enough in it to give Özil's critics pause (not that they'll heed it). Consider Exhibit A: Thierry Henry. In his eight years at Arsenal, he scored 226 goals in 392 games, a rate of 0.576 goals per game. This is considered by many, if not all, as sublime and supreme. True, in his last season, he was hampered by injuries and, perhaps, age. Still, his arrival at Barcelona seems to offered a rejuvenating tonic as he found a way to bag 45 goals in 89 games while sharing the load with Messi and Ibrahimovic. Yes, his goals per game dipped from 0.576 to 0.505, but that seems to reflect his changing role and declining skill. Send a 25-year old Henry to Barcelona instead of a 30-year old and see what happens.

What happens when you send a 25-year old from the Prem to La Liga? Ask Cristiano Ronaldo. Already a prolific scorer at Man U (0.587 goals per game in his last three seasons, cherry-picked to exclude his early growing pains and to highlight how much he had been scoring), Ronaldo erupted in La Liga, scoring 269 goals in 257 goals for an eye-popping rate 1.04 goals per game. He's nearly doubled the rate at which he scored in the Prem. He's nearly doubled the rate at which Henry scored—a rate that was good enough to endear Henry to Gooners everywhere for eternity. If Henry had been scoring at this rate, he would have amassed 407 goals (408, for those who round up). 407. That's right. His 400th goal would have come in 2007 when he was still at Arsenal. Fancy that.

Which brings us back to Özil. Yes, it's a waste to play Özil wide when he's more effective through the middle. Yes, his talents would be maximized when he has speedy, clinical scorers to pass to. Perhaps it's a waste to play Özil in a league in which most teams actually play defense and deny their opponents the kind of free reign that Özil, Ronaldo, and others have come to take for granted. So Özil's key passes and assists have taken a dip over the first three months of the season? Yes, this is a trend that harkens back to a year ago, when Özil's early-season form took a swan-dive. This coincided with the injuries to Walcott and Ramsey, for what that's worth. That it has persisted might just reflect the introduction of two or more new targets in Welbeck and Alexis. It's almost as if we're asking Özil to learn a new position, a new squad, and a new league all over again.

Has Özil deliverd on his promise? No. Have we built up our expectations to an unreasonable level? Yes. If nothing else, Giroud is not Ronaldo. That alone should be enough to explain Özil's dip in form. On a broader level, La Liga is not the Prem, not when a 100-goal season is a rarity, not a baseline. In the Prem, we've had three 100-goal seasons, two of them last season when Man City (102) and Liverpool (101) accomplished the feat. Each was seen as a caricature of how to win matches. Put Özil in one of those squads and, yes, he'd slot right in.

Özil's form has suffered, and, at some level, we're right to worry. However, as is usually the case, the worry outpaces the warrant. In the context of the differences between the Prem and La Liga, Özil's performance makes almost-perfect sense. Let's see what he can do when he has a front-line of Alexis, Welbeck, and Walcott to work with, shall we?