11 November 2015

Is Arsenal home to the best #10 in the world?

With an international break upon us, we can step back from preparing for and then dissecting matches and take a look at the bigger picture. Even as we've been ravaged by injuries, one of the brightest spots has been the play of Mesut Özil, who has now delivered assists in six consecutive Prem matches, an historic feat, and has twice as many assists as the next most-generous man. Does this make Özil the best #10 in England? Almost certainly. Does it make him the best #10 in Europe? Probably. What's scary, though, is that he's not even scratching the surface of his talents.

Three years into his time at Arsenal, Özil finally looks like he's comfortable: with the new league and country for one, but, more importantly, with his new role. At Real Madrid, he could more-comfortably lurk in the long shadows cast by other galácticos who craved and coveted the limelight that comes with being the leading man. Upon his arrival at Arsenal, though, he was immediately elevated to that echelon, and that, more than the more-ordinary transition from one league to another, seems to have taken much longer for the retiring Özil to deal with.

It's not just that the man conjures scoring chances out of thin air—but, to be clear, he does, often to the extent that his own teammates can't anticipate the passes that he threads—it's in how much he pulls defenses out of shape. Traditional #10s might spend most of their time in the centre of the pitch in order to send passes forward to the striker or to wingers, but Özil defies conventional wisdom by spending just as much time if not more on the wings, finding space behind Arsenal's wingers from which to send angled passes or crosses into the box (such as for the equaliser against Tottenham). He pops up all over the pitch, dropping deep to receive the ball, arriving on one touchline or the other, all but daring a defense to track him. Assign a defensive midfielder to him, and watch as he stays wide in order to open space through the middle for others to flow into.

Key Passes
However, any suggestion that the man is the best #10 in the world invites certain comparisons, and the first names that come to mind would have to be Manchester City's David Silva and Barcelona's Andrés Iniesta. Comparisons to the former are complicated by his injury woes; comparisons to the latter are complicated by his age and declining rile. Comparisons to both are complicated by each squad's propensity to overwhelm opponents. Taking a look at the table above, it would seem at first glance that Özil does in fact outpace Iniesta and Silva. Iniesta, for example, has registered zero assists despite feeding the likes of Neymar, Suárez, and Messi. At the other end of things, Silva actually outpaces Özil, finding an assist once every 69.5 minutes compared to Özil's once every 93.3. Then again, Silva is feeding Sergio Agüero, one of the Prem's most-clinical finishers.

Take a gander at that right-most column in the table above. While it's true that Silva's key pass-to-assist ratio is much, much better than Özil's, we shouldn't really measure the effectiveness of a #10 by the goals that get scored. That, after all, is a measurement of another player's abilities. The #10 is a playmaker, one whose vision and creativity allows other to score. By that definition, Özil eclipses Silva by such a margin as to beggar belief. Whereas Silva offers a key pass once every 41.7 minutes (about once per half), Özil does so once every 21.1 minutes—almost twice as often, about twice per half. That his passes ripen into assists less often than Silva's do are not attributable to him. Giroud offers many attributes, but clinical finishing is not one of them.

In the name of looking at the bigger picture, though, it would be a mistake to drill down into dour statistics. When we talk of Özil, very often the talk turns to intangibles, at times in a sardonic sense as if his occasional invisibility indicates a lack of quality. However, Arsène has spoken of Özil's less-quantifiable contributions, saying the following:
He was outstanding again [during the North London Derby]. He has grown into a very great player as he has added commitment, leadership qualities and responsibility, and I’m very pleased with his development.
Yes, Arsène mentioned "leadership", which might seem an odd quality given Özil's understated personality and the enduring image of Mertesacker berating him after an embarrassing loss to Man City in December 2013.  The squad has taken great strides since then, but perhaps no one has taken greater strides than has Özil. In other words, not only is he staking a claim to being one of the best #10s in the world, Özil might be on the verge of taking Arsenal itself by the scruff and elevating it to one of the best squads in the world. That's a long row to hoe, but the early returns suggest that Özil has risen to the task.