By Tony Attwood
Take your average premier league centre forward and you will find that at various times he goes through the season without scoring. It is called a barren spell and is considered normal. Indeed if it is Jamie Vardy, then even a sending off during a whole season that is poor by his previous standard is excused and the FA are roundly blamed for not forgiving him on appeal. (The Guardian’s piece on the latest Vardy escapade opens with “Gary Lineker is right. There seems no point even appealing against a red card any more because unless you have evidence to prove mistaken identity or something similar the Football Association’s independent regulatory commission is simply going to back the referee’s decision.”)
But when it comes to Mesut Özil such issues don’t apply. So far this season he has five goals in the Premier League, and is the 17th top scorer in the league – not bad for a player who isn’t there as a goal scorer. He’s also the fourth highest goalscorer in the Champions League this season.
The combination of Alexis and Mesut is the most productive in the league, and earlier this year Mesut was all the rage with headlines such as “Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil just replaced Eric Cantona as king of Premier League assists… Arsenal’s German playmaker now provides assists more often than any other player in Premier League history” (Daily Mirror).
And now he is useless, overpaid, a disgrace and by and large should be deported. In fact the sooner we leave the EU and can deport foreigners we don’t like the better.
All because of two poor games. No excuses, no realisation that it is just two games. No pleading that the rules have to be changed. No nothing. Just sheer, unadulterated hatred pouring out from bloggettas and some (not all) journalists. He’s not just nicking a living he’s stolen the bloody stadium and the entire heritage of the club as well as the till takings from the shop.
Özil plays for Arsenal to create opportunities. Not just assists that lead to a goal, and not just goals, but moves that allow others to transform the moment. He does this not only by extraordinary technique (I remember the first time I watched him noting that he plays passes which after they are complete look so simple and yet which no one else on the pitch can see before they are executed) but also by a constant reading of the game. Half the time he is distracting the opposition who know they have to stop him but have no idea how – something that makes more space for Theo, Alexis, Iwobi and the Ox.
One of the problems is not Mesut’s problem at all, but a British disease. In Britain we are utterly fixated by the weird notion of “body language” in which you supposedly can tell what a person is thinking by the way they stand, look and move. And Mesut has the WRONG BODY LANGUAGE.
In one sense this is right, because by the way he moves and holds himself Mesut has managed to win possession more times in the final third than any player other than Eden Hazard – 16. The same number of times as Alexis. And for this he should, apparently, be crucified.
Body language does suggest to simple souls what a person might be thinking, but it is a very poor indicator of what is going on (unless the person is holding an axe covered in blood and waving it towards your throat, in which case it can be quite helpful as a suggestion as to what you might do next).
Stage actors and footballers use body language to manipulate expectations of the future. Body language doesn’t tell you what the player (or actor) is thinking; it is used by the best players to mislead. 16 times he’s won possession with just 11 tackles tells you what is going on; he’s using body language like Alexis did in fooling the West Ham keeper with a step over.
So to confuse Özil’s body language and lack of tackles and demand a change, is in fact to demand that he gives up one of his best skills – misleading the opposition. To criticise him because he’s had a couple of bad games is to demand of him a standard that is demanded of no one else.
Did we lambaste Thierry Henry because in the winter of 2004/5 he went six league games in a row without scoring? Did we demand to kick him out? I don’t recall that, although I suppose it might have happened. There are some very dumb people around.
Or try this: the one player who makes fewer tackles than Mesut is Hazard but he is adored, despite having almost an entire season last year in which he played in a manner akin to Mesut in the last two games.
What Mesut does is win the ball by different means, but in England we are so fixated on “the tackle” as an important measure and so fired up to attack anything Arsenal do, that we condemn Mesut at once. Interceptions can be far more important than tackles because they leave the opposition player travelling in the wrong directions. Winning the ball high up the pitch is not only a brilliant defensive tactic, but also a brilliant counter-attacking tactic.
Here’s another stat, and this comes from Guardian, so thanks to them for pointing it out. I didn’t know it until I started this rant.
Having won possession in the attacking third 16 times this season, Özil is level in second in the league with Sánchez. Given that Sánchez has played an extra game, it’s harsh to suggest that Özil doesn’t contribute defensively.
Theo Walcott playing a different sort of game makes twice as many tackles as Mesut, but has won possession in the attacking third only eight times.
So as always what we have here is the English disease. Take the last couple of games, don’t do any analysis (because you can prove anything with statistics) and then rage, shout, demand and demean. Ultimately the player will recognise what’s going on and suggest that maybe he ought to be playing for another team preferably in another country where the crowd is not quite so stupid, and the media not so instantly reactive.
Let me throw in one more point. Alexis runs around a lot, always chasing, always showing enthusiasm, except when substituted to protect himself from exhaustion or muscle strains, when he reacts like a spoilt little boy. The crowd loves this. Mesut does it in a different way, and gets the media and some of the crowd on his back.
Here are Mesut’s figures (the total column includes league cup and charity shield, not incorporated in the individual totals.
In his total footballing career Mesut scored 16.78 goals per game. With Arsenal it is 21.17 goals per game. I don’t think that’s too bad for an assist master.
And from the History Society