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Mesut Özil Dilemma Remains for Unai Emery in His Spurs Derby Plans

Mesut Özil Dilemma Remains for Unai Emery in His Spurs Derby Plans

Wednesday, 5 December, 2018 - 07:30
Mesut Özil on Arsenal’s bench at Bournemouth last Sunday. Whether he warms it again for the north London derby this Sunday is a pressing question for Unai Emery. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Offside/Getty Images
London - Jonathan Wilson
Tell me what you think about Mesut Özil, and I will tell you who you are. Or at least that is the way the endless debate around the Arsenal playmaker often seems to be framed. Are you somebody who loves beauty and grace and is prepared to accept occasional indolence as a price worth paying, or are you some sort of utilitarian box-ticker, demanding constant effort at all times? Are you a continental sophisticate, or a blunt English football man who prizes industry above imagination? But it is, of course, much more complicated than that.

The question feels especially pertinent in the wake of Arsenal’s win at Bournemouth last Sunday, when Unai Emery left out Özil, suggesting he was unsuited to a “very demanding match with physicality and intensity”. Emery, in contrast to Arsène Wenger, is somebody who will pick a team to suit a particular game, so in itself omitting Özil was nothing especially untoward. That said, the German had missed only two games previously this season: the 3-1 win over West Ham in August when he was supposedly ill, although there were reports there had been a training-ground row following his petulant reaction to being substituted against Chelsea the previous week; and the 5-1 win at Fulham after he had suffered a back spasm.

But the reason given seemed odd. Bournemouth press well, but they are far from being one of the Premier League’s most physical teams. Only Manchester City and Chelsea have committed fewer fouls than them this season. They are not Pulis-era Stoke. It was not as though Özil had been wearied by international duty; he no longer plays for Germany. It was all rather odd.

Perhaps Emery meant that it was a game in which Arsenal had to play with particular physicality and intensity, to prevent Bournemouth establishing their passing rhythm. Arsenal had, after all, conceded five goals in their previous two visits to the Vitality Stadium. But even that is damning. Özil, when so minded, can be an effective defensive presence, as he was a year ago, when Arsenal beat Tottenham 2-0. Emery’s point, then, is effectively that he cannot trust Özil, an extraordinary situation for a player on £350,000 a week.

As it turned out, the front three of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan made a total of three tackles and no interceptions between them at Bournemouth. That is a slightly crude measure given that the art of pressing is largely to do with positioning rather than necessarily direct ball-winning, but it still suggests that Emery was not demanding his side should look to impose themselves on or intimidate Bournemouth.

Discipline, rather, is the key for Emery. That is why the most striking image from the draw against Liverpool in early November was him punching the air after Granit Xhaka had got back to tackle Mohamed Salah. Emery is not somebody to indulge wayward stars, no matter how talented, a position that can only have been strengthened after what happened at Paris Saint-Germain, where Neymar openly defied him. Özil is not Neymar, clearly, either in terms of talent or disruptiveness, but the lesson that harmony and discipline go together can only have been reinforced.

It may be that Emery decides the best way to take on Tottenham is to attack them, to force them to defend and seek to expose a defence that can look vulnerable under pressure. But equally the teams who have done best against Tottenham this season have been those who have pressed them – Liverpool and Manchester City most notably, but also Inter in the away game in the Champions League, when Tottenham, although they should have won, looked very uneasy playing out from the back.

One of the problems of late-Wenger era Arsenal was that their pressing was not up to scratch, that there was a lack of cohesiveness so that a couple of players would close down the man in possession but not be backed up by the rest of the team. Pressing requires commitment and coordination and too often that was not there. But can Özil be relied upon to fulfil his role if Arsenal are to press? That that is even a question suggests the depth of the problem.

Some players can be allowed a certain latitude. Viktor Maslov, the father of pressing, exempted Andriy Biba from defensive responsibility at Dynamo Kyiv because of his creative contribution. But is Özil any longer a player worth indulging? In 2015-16, he registered six goals and 19 assists in the league; in 2016-17, eight goals and 11 assists; in 2017-18 four goals and nine assists; this season so far, three goals and one assist. There are always reasons and reasons beyond the reasons, but that suggests a trend of decreasing effectiveness.

Özil remains a supremely gifted player. He has this season been involved in some moves of great fluidity and goals of great beauty. But is that enough? Again and again we return to the central question: if he is not considered robust enough to play against Bournemouth, can Özil really play against Tottenham?

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