How Arsenal playmaker Mesut Ozil became the master at giving others a chance

Arsenal man has been an enigma – but now, due to a variety of reasons from his age to his team-mates, the numbers are adding up

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Friday 06 November 2015 19:34 GMT

The remarkable thing about Mesut Özil’s brilliant season is that he is not even doing what Arsène Wenger asked of him.

Goals were what Wenger wanted from Özil this year. “He plays in the position, he is a good finisher, but he doesn’t take enough chances, and he is conscious of it,” Wenger said in July. “We want 10 goals per season from him.”

Özil agreed. “I want to score more goals than in the last two seasons, and that’s my aim for this season,” he said in August. “I need to become a bit more selfish.”

But he has scored just twice so far. Big goals, admittedly, in the home wins against Manchester United and Bayern Munich. But still just two, after three months of football and 15 starts. At this rate, he should finish the season with eight.

Özil has not changed his game much this year, only improved it. He has not become a different player, just become the best creative player in the country, and by a distance.

There has always been a debate about the measurability of what Özil does on the football pitch. During his quiet first two seasons at Arsenal, there was a theory that what he does – those deft touches and clever runs – was not always recorded by the conventional metrics of goals and assists. It was almost as if his ghostly style made him elusive not just to opponents but also to statisticians. That served to explain why this clearly talented £42.5m footballer could, more often than not, leave such a light footprint on matches.

This year, though, Özil’s brilliance has been very measurable indeed. While assists are important – only David Silva and Gerard Deulofeu average more per 90 minutes than him – they are an imperfect tool, as they leave the creator at the mercy of the striker’s finish. What matters more is chances created, and in those areas Özil is destroying the competition.

Özil is leading the Premier League for chances created per 90 minutes played, with 4.99, almost 20 per cent more than second-placed Dimitri Payet, according to Opta. For only chances created from open play, Özil is at 4.14, a nearly 40 per cent margin over Eden Hazard in second. On the creation of “big chances”, the gap is narrower, but Özil is still top, ahead of Riyad Mahrez and Deulofeu.

In terms of assists, chances created, and open play chances created, Özil is in the form of his life, launching himself comfortably beyond anything he has done at Arsenal so far and even beating his best numbers from Werder Bremen and Real Madrid. Clearly, his contribution was measurable all along. This year he is simply doing more.

Arsenal’s title challenge – looking to be their most serious since 2007-08 at the least – has been built on Özil’s creative brain. Arsenal are recording more shots per game – 19.2 – than any other side has since this particular record began. And Özil, more than anyone else, is responsible for this.

All of Arsenal’s best goals this season have come from the delicate incisions of Özil’s boots. There was the delightfully floated cross to Olivier Giroud against Crystal Palace, a similar one against Everton, an arced long ball to Theo Walcott against Stoke, and a sweet little lob over the Leicester defence to Alexis Sanchez.

It has certainly helped that Özil has been playing in an Arsenal team full of forward runners –Sanchez, Walcott and Aaron Ramsey – who have given him options and created space for Özil to use. Last Saturday, at Swansea City, there was no Walcott, Ramsey or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but Özil was still brilliant, making Giroud’s goal with a corner kick and Joel Campbell’s with yet another perfect pass.

There are not many £42m players who are happier assisting than scoring, in supporting rather than lead roles, but this is what makes Özil so special. This is why Wenger can berate him for his selflessness, even when he is playing this well. “I think, deeply, he is a very, very collective player,” Wenger explained two weeks ago. “If you tell him to do that, he will do it for you. His talent is exceptional, fantastic. He sacrifices himself for the team. Sometimes he releases the ball when you want him to, sometimes he will do it when you don’t want him to do it.”

This unique selflessness is why Özil was so popular even among the politics and the cliques of Real Madrid. Soon after arriving there from Werder Bremen, Özil was thought by the rest of the squad to be the most technically proficient, able to do things nobody else could, and with the crucial ability to make his team-mates look better.

But if that technical ability and tactical intelligence have always been there, what has changed this year? Why have his numbers jumped so dramatically? The answer lies in the part of football that cannot be measured or recorded. If there was one legitimate criticism of Özil’s first two years at Arsenal it is that he did not take enough responsibility, compared with a player like David Silva.

This year, though, Özil has realised that he was the only man who could unlock his talent. The young man who once famously invited police officers into his private box at the Emirates after being involved in a Porsche collision, has grown up. “London transforms people,” Wenger said in July. “At the start, people feel a bit of a shock, but after a while, London slowly gets people under the charm of the city. I have seen that many times.”

Wenger’s theory is that as soon as Özil turned 27, as he did earlier this season, he realised that he has to take charge.

“He is 27 now,” Wenger explained last month. “It is the golden age of a football player, 27 to 31 or 32. When you know your job, you realise suddenly that it is not only important to play, it is important to win as well. Once you get to 27 you realise it is time to capitalise on what you have learnt, and efficiency takes over.”

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