The year is 2009. Arsenal are on the attack. Forward they pour, a dazzling blur of red and white. Now Fabregas has it at the edge of the box. He looks up. He dinks to the left, takes a touch to the right, and pirouettes away from a defender. He takes another touch, looks up again, another little dink, he looks up…and passes backwards as yet another Arsenal attack is stifled by two, well organised banks of four, defending deep and in numbers.
While now we are obsessed with our failure to win the big top 4 clashes, for much of the ‘post-Invincibles’ era our real Achilles Heel was failing to beat ‘lesser’ teams who had been drilled to sit back, defend deep and narrow, soak up the pressure, and watch us weave pretty patterns everywhere but where there was a danger that we might score. If I’m honest, despite at times playing some wonderful football, that is my abiding image of the ‘Fabregas years’.
Over the past couple of seasons that had all changed. Once again, we became fairly confident that, home or away, we would knock over the league’s minnows, however they set up. But recently the same old frailties seem to have re-emerged, and perhaps some Arsenal fans are feeling a little foolish for moaning that we were just ‘flat track bullies’.
Naa Na Na Nana Na Naaaaa…
In a way, it’s strange that ‘flat track bully’ is seen as such a derogatory term in football. After all, games that a ‘flat-track bullying’ Arsenal would win account for 96 points in the league! A key reason for Arsenal’s season by season increase in total league points over the last few seasons has been our newfound ability to knock down the lesser teams, home and away. And central to that has been Olivier Giroud. With Giroud on the pitch, suddenly the opposition couldn’t rely on two deep-lying banks of 4 to keep Arsenal out of danger areas. Nor could their centre backs out-muscle and bully our man in the box. And no longer did we need to rely solely on pretty passing patterns. Arsenal had a ‘plan B’, a direct route to goal when facing packed defences or pushing for last minute goals. Furthermore, our ‘plan A’ was provided with an impressively solid fulcrum around which our smaller, technical players could weave those pretty patterns. He was also, a lot like Drogba at Chelsea, a huge asset defending set pieces – a crucial Achilles heel over the years in those sorts of games.
I’ve always found the ‘number of goals in big games’ stat that is so often used to denounce Giroud a little pointless. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Do we play badly against the top teams because Giroud failed to score, or did Giroud fail to score because we played badly against the top teams? But if we are considering slightly arbitrary stats, there is a Giroud one that had far more bearing on our eventual league position: he scored 8 ‘result changing’ goals which won us a total of 22 points – more than any other player in the league. He had just scored one such goal – rescuing a point in the dying seconds of the Everton game – when he got injured, and since then there have been 8 games in all competitions that we have drawn or lost by 1 goal. And for all our pressure and possession toward the end of those games, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling we simply never looked like getting that crucial goal in many of them. With Giroud on the pitch, on the other hand, I always fancy us to grab one, and that direct option he offered us was often what turned those games into draws and wins last season.
Giroud might not have had his best games against ‘top 4 opposition’, but denouncing a player who will have such an impact in all but 6 games in a season seems pretty foolish to me.
'Mesut Ozil – nobody wants him when he plays, everybody needs him when he doesn’t' - Jurgen Klopp
On now to our record signing: the ‘doesn’t take games by the scruff of the neck’, ‘nicking a living’, waste of space that is Mesut Özil.
And I’m going to let you into a little secret:
He’s actually really, really good at the football. Mesut’s problem is that sometimes he’s so good we don’t notice. Let’s go back to that Fabregas clip from 2009 and replace him with Özil. In the Özil version, he hardly seems to have the ball. He flows forward, takes a half-touch before moving the ball on, with the right pass to the right player. A few moments later he gets it back, and with a flick moves it on to a team mate, and again, the ball has gone where it needs to go without any fuss, without any unnecessary touches. He hardly seems ‘in possession’, he’s never seems to be ‘dominating’, he’s just making the right pass time and time again, pulling the opposition subtly out of position, never giving them time to fully organise. When we do finally score, it may not even be him that played the assist or put it in the back of the net. The press will say ‘Özil had another quiet game’; ‘is that all you get for £42 million?’ The fans will say ‘Thank God for Ramsey bailing us out! (Though by the way, isn’t it weird that he suddenly found himself in so much space to score that winner?’)
It is only when you look at his stats that you truly appreciate how misleading this mesmeric anonymity actually is. This season, this player who ‘drifts in and out of games’ had, until he got injured, had more touches in the opposition half and completed more passes in the final third than any player other than David Silva. Last season he created nearly 20% of ALL of our chances (the highest in the league - more than Hazard or Suarez). And at his ‘disappointing’ World Cup only Messi created more.
If it were a computer game, Özil would be a character whose stats all seem a bit average, but who has a ‘bonus multiplier’ that makes every player around him gain 10% in each stat category. Mesut Özil, very, very quietly, makes us a much, much better team. It is no coincidence that we finally won silverware the season he arrived, or that our losing streaks so often coincide with his injury lay-offs. The fact that our moronic pundits see Alexis as a glorious success and Özil as a disappointment says far more about English footballing culture than it does about either of the two players. Alexis has everything English football celebrates – individuality, pace, power, and hustle. His qualities are so obvious. It takes no analytical effort to appreciate the value of his performances; it is right there, in your face. He’s your archetypal ‘take games by the scruff of the neck’ kind of player, and we adore him for it. He is, in other words, the polar opposite of Mesut Özil.
I adore Alexis Sanchez, I really do. He is a wonderfully talented, game-changing signing, with an attitude to die for and a smile that could probably bring peace to the Middle East. (And all those ‘English’ qualities don’t prevent him having wonderful technique either). But I bet you £50 we’d have more points on the board if Özil were fit and Alexis were injured.
You Don’t Know What You’ve Got til…
Arsenal fans, or perhaps football fans, are very good at identifying the things that go wrong, but not always so good at recognising the subtle contributions that help things go right. Both Giroud and Özil have been the target of a great deal of criticism, but in their absence hopefully we can see just how important they are…