After nearly tying Thierry Henry’s record for assists last season, Mesut Özil has registered just one (though really two) in the Premier League this season, plus another in Arsenal’s 6-0 win over Ludogorets. But Özil has also scored 7 goals in 14 games, with a tweak in his role allowing him to get into more scoring opportunities. Such a plan is deliberate: Arsène Wenger has long discussed wanting Özil to score more goals, praising his finishing ability, his calmness in front of goal. Özil is shooting twice per 90 minutes, with 1.2 shots taking place in the penalty box, an increase of .6 shots per 90 and .5 half a shot in the penalty box.
Without a doubt, Özil is creating a lesser volume of chances. But that doesn’t mean his influence has waned, but rather, tactical changes mean Arsenal can get more of a decisive impact from him, while also varying their play so that the team does not suffer as much when Özil is absent from the side or effectively marshaled by the opposition. It also means that Özil has become more decisive, becoming gradually freed from having to drop deep into midfield to make up for the deficiencies of Arsenal’s midfield play, and thus, he is still creating a large number of quality chances.
The biggest change is, of course, that Alexis Sánchez is Arsenal’s centre forward, rather than Olivier Giroud. While Alexis still plays a similar game upfront to how he does from the left, the role, as a false 9 model, creates space behind, with opposition centre backs unsure whether to mark space or follow Alexis. This has allowed for a renaissance for Theo Walcott, but also has provided more space for Özil to go beyond Alexis, while Aaron Ramsey could also be expected to profit if he were played in a central midfield role. Özil always has an excellent awareness of space, but so much of that awareness comes from lateral movement, rather than vertical movement. But his movement is more vertical this season, as is Arsenal’s play, which is the second tactical change to benefit Özil.
One tweak to Arsenal’s midfield this season has been a return to a passing midfielder playing at the base of the midfield. When the midfield is Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin, Coquelin plays higher up, while Cazorla plays at the base of the midfield, while Cazorla has played higher up when Granit Xhaka has been in the side. The purpose is for Arsenal to build play quickly, with Cazorla or Xhaka passing quickly from deep to the creative forward players—Alexis, when he drops deeper, Alex Iwobi and Özil—with Coquelin’s decoy role meaning Arsenal try to bypass the middle of the park more.
We have also seen this from the centre backs, Shkodran Mustafi in particular. Laurent Koscielny’s passing was already important for Arsenal’s attacking game, with the Frenchman often stepping into midfield to help Arsenal build, while Per Mertesacker was more of a controlling passer. Shkodran Mustafi, though, has passed more like Koscielny: passing 20% than Mertesacker did last season (while Coquelin, Cazorla and Koscielny have all passed a little less), and playing 38% more long passes. Mustafi’s penetrating ball-playing was highlighted before he joined the club, and it is one aspect that has allowed Arsenal to be more direct, and also meant that Arsenal could get away with not having much of a midfield in most Premier League matches.
The result is Özil has had to pick the ball up in deep midfield positions less this season, focusing instead of giving Arsenal an added threat in behind, confident of the passing play of his teammates behind him. But in recent weeks this has lessened, and Özil’s goal-scoring has faded. With Cazorla out and Xhaka inexplicably benched, Arsenal’s ability to move the ball quickly from back to front has decreased, as Mohamed Elneny, who is a good passer though not with a large range of passing, and Francis Coquelin, who is not a good passer, have played deep in midfield. And with a worse midfield, teams have picked up on the importance of the passing of the centre backs, placing the two under more pressure and trying to cut off their passing angles, with Héctor Bellerín’s absence only contributing to the poor ball circulation.
Hard to see where the width in this #AFC #passmap would come from.— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) November 19, 2016
And playing Coquelin costs Arsenal a lot of ball circulation. pic.twitter.com/jFJPjhr12e
What happens next is entirely up to Arsène Wenger. If he wants Özil to continue to have a more decisive influence in the final third, restoring Granit Xhaka to the lineup, preferably with Aaron Ramsey in central midfield, whose penchant for combination play will improve Arsenal's ball movement in midfield, would be a necessary step. Otherwise, there will likely be a repeat of the end of last season, where Özil was required deeper and deeper to allow Arsenal to even build play, and Arsenal struggled for fluency further up the pitch. The decision Wenger makes will directly impact Arsenal’s season: with Özil put into a place where he can be decisive in front of goals and in the attacking third, Arsenal were a vibrant, attacking side that looked capable of challenging for the league, and as Mesut Özil goes, so too does Arsenal.