Mesut Özil had come under heavy criticism in the second half of his debut season in the Premier League. A string of lackluster performances, an unwillingness to track back and defend along with a missed penalty in the Champions league round of 16 first leg against Bayern Munich saw the German international’s critics have a field day
The fact is that Mesut Özil has never been known for his defensive capabilities and as much as I believe it is an area of his game that he can improve on, it simply isn’t his game and for the majority of his career he has not been asked to defend. Under Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, Mesut Özil was given the protection of two defensive midfielders in Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. For the German national team he has the same protection with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Lars Bender or Sami Khedira playing just in front of the defense. At Arsenal Özil does not have that luxury. Flamini is the only natural defensive midfielder, Mikel Arteta has been playing that role for some time at Arsenal, but his lack of pace and natural instincts to attack make him suspect. In addition, at Real Madrid Özil had attackers who made constant runs behind the defense in Karim Benzema, Gonzalo Higuain, Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria. Similarly for the German national side Özil is flanked by Thomas Muller, Lukas Podolski, Marco Reus or Julian Draxler. All natural wingers who hug the touchline and make runs behind the opposition defence, allowing Özil to do what he does best, release the defense splitting final ball. This role saw him rise to the top of the assists charts in Europe, earning him the reputation and name; King of the assists.
Arsenal fans didn’t have to wait long to witness the King at work, as it took Özil 10 minutes to make his first assist in his first game for Arsenal against Sunderland in a move that showcased all of his qualities; a fantastic burst of speed to get into space to receive the long ball from Kieran Gibbs, a sublime first touch to get the ball under control, a quick glance up to see Olivier Giroud in space and a perfectly weighted final ball to allow Giroud to put the ball in the back of the net. His start at Arsenal saw Özil deployed in an almost similar position to the one he had at Real Madrid and the national team. In a 4-2-3-1 formation, Özil was given license to operate in front of Wilshere and Flamini. He was flanked by Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey with Olivier Giroud leading the line in attack. With Santi Cazorla out injured, Jack Wilshere playing a deeper distributive midfield role and Theo Walcott making the runs behind the opposition defense, Özil, given the responsibility to create, flourished. That role saw him create four assists and score three goals in his first seven games for The Gunners.
As the season approached mid-October, with Aaron Ramsey playing higher up the field, Theo Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain injured and the return of Santi Cazorla from injury, a situation was created whereby two to four midfielders; (Ramsey, Wilshere, Özil, Cazorla) were competing to be the protagonist in the team. With so much creative talent, one often witnessed Özil drifting towards the wings in search of space and being less of an influence in matches. Ramsey, Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Rosicky are all fantastic players but are all natural central midfield players. As a result, if you put them on the wings, instead of hugging the touchline to make the field as big as possible and make runs behind the opposition to give Özil an opportunity to make the decisive final ball they will try to cut inside to make a play through the middle or take a rare shot at goal. Why spend £42.5 Million to bring in a player with the intention of giving him the creative responsibilities only to make him one of many creative options?
Arsenals midfield have lacked width this season and that is down to Podolski, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain all being out injured for large portions of the season, making it difficult for Özil to create opportunities. Serge Gnabry has been available but due to his youth, has been used sparingly in an attempt to protect him. The gunners were however worse off in terms of goals scored compared to the last two seasons at the same stage, even with the services of the King of the assists at their disposal. This fact emphasizes the point that if Arsene Wenger doesn’t make the decision to make Mesut Özil his main creative Midfielder and sacrifice Ramsey, Wilshere or Cazorla to the substitute’s bench, he will not get the best out of Özil.