Image: Singha94/Wikimedia Commons
Image: Singha94/Wikimedia Commons

Özil vs Emery: A battle for supremacy on and off the pitch

In January 2018, Mesut Özil signed a new three-and-a-half-year contract with Arsenal, becoming the highest paid player in the history of the club. His performances had seemed to warrant the £350,000 a week the club invested in his talents. Özil recorded the most assists and the most chances created of any player in the Premier League since his debut in 2013, eclipsing the tallies of stars such as Christian Eriksen, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas. Since his new contract, however, Özil has cut a frustrated figure suffering from dips in form and struggling with injuries. Seemingly carrying a desultory attitude to new manager Unai Emery’s high press, high work rate philosophy, Özil has been left on the bench and out of the squad. He has even been linked away from the club in the last transfer window. With this new style of play, is there room for Özil in the side or is Emery justified in giving him be a part role in the team?

Unai Emery has favoured a more cautious set-up to his Arsenal side, often playing two defensive midfielders to cover for their defensive fragility. In wanting to give width to his side, this has left one place in the starting XI for an attacking midfielder. Seeing as Aaron Ramsey is joining Juventus at the end of the season and Denis Suarez will soon return from his loan spell, Özil would expect to be one of the first names on the team sheet. This makes his absence from the team even more suspect as Emery prefers to play Ramsey, especially in away matches and against the top six. Why is this?

The issue is more his urgency in maintaining his position after pressing

The typical accusation hurled at Özil is laziness; an unwillingness to cover a lot of ground over 90 minutes.  However, he consistently runs over 10km a game, covering more ground than many of his attacking peers.  The issue is more his urgency in maintaining his position after pressing. Ramsey this season has consistently won more tackles and let fewer players dribble past him per game, whilst playing the same offensive position. This type of effective defensive display from high up the pitch fits Emery’s philosophy perfectly. This was evident in the recent North London derby, with Ramsey quick to press and then return to his central position at a similar pace, showing urgency with and without the ball.  When Özil replaced Ramsey with 20 minutes left to play, he often showed energy to close people down but would struggle to return to his position, leaving Tottenham space to attack in the centre of the pitch. This was extremely noticeable as Arsenal set up with two wingers who stayed glued to the touchline, leaving the attacking midfielder a lot of space to cover. With these defensive lapses, it seems sensible to avoid playing Özil in games where Arsenal expect to have less of the ball, ensuring the team’s shape is compact.

Although there is room for improvement defensively, the former German international brings a lot to the Arsenal side offensively. His guile and vision provides attacking prowess that the rest of the Arsenal midfield struggles to match. His recent performances against BATE Borisov and Bournemouth have shown Arsenal fans and the manager what they’ve been missing, clocking the most key passes as well as claiming a superb goal and typically unselfish assist. If he can provide consistency to his game, as Emery has been demanding on the pitch and in training, there is no question he should be starting every match.

Emery is right to highlight Özil’s weaknesses to try and mould him into the player needed for his desired system

So, can Özil alter his style to suit that of Emery? Sergio Aguero suffered a similar problem when Pep Guardiola first took over at Manchester City. Often only required to stand in front of goal for previous managers, it took several months before Guardiola restored him to the starting line up convinced he could press the ball effectively. He has since continued to play regularly and break goalscoring records for City. It is then plausible that Özil can come through this tense spell and recover a starting place. Where Emery may be wary is his experience with Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain. After failing to get such a big character to subscribe to his philosophy, he subsequently lost the dressing room; something which he may fear at Arsenal if Özil follows a similar path and still makes the starting XI.

Emery is right to highlight Özil’s weaknesses to try and mould him into the player needed for his desired system. To take him out of the team for away matches, especially against the top teams, is currently necessary to provide pressing all over the pitch in matches where Arsenal will spend more time without the ball. Özil must work hard on recovering his position quickly to suit Emery’s style; else his spells on the sideline will be extended. However, to ostracise him completely would be foolish on Emery’s part with so few options in this position, especially looking ahead to the next season. Özil has proved with his recent performances that, in games that suit his style, he is the predominant player. Arsenal need this creative spark with a midfield that otherwise does little to penetrate opposition defences. If Özil can capitalise on his current form and continue to show consistency in training, we may see that he claims a first-team place.  Who knows, the fruits of such labour could see Arsenal winning a European competition for the first time in twenty-five years. However, if Mesut Özil doesn’t bend to Emery’s will, he may just leave the club in the next transfer window.

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