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Mesut Özil and the problem of superstars and statistics

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Mesut Özil is being attacked again. But it’s not really about him.

Arsenal v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

There’s been a lot of talk about Mesut Özil this week. His agent came out and said talks were going well, which would be a lot easier to believe if Özil hadn’t said that in January. And June. And July. All the while, the odds that he joins Manchester United are falling on betting sites, and Arsene Wenger said that it is “possible” that either he or Alexis, Arsenal’s other wantaway superstar, could be sold in January.

To that whit, there have been several articles written about Özil, including Barney Ronay’s in the Guardian. Ronay claims that Arsenal should sell Özil in January:

Arsène Wenger really does have to try to sell him in January. The idea of this Arsenal team as some high-grade Özil-centred machine has flickered at times. But that ship has sailed. This is over. It’s done.

Next week it will be the six-month anniversary of Özil’s last Arsenal goal. Since December 2016 he has contributed one – one! – assist away from the Emirates Stadium. The team play better without him in it. He has already earned £30m in his time at the club. There is nothing here to justify an astronomically improved contract.

One point of clarification—Özil last scored for Arsenal on May 13, away at Stoke. So it won’t be six-months since his last goal next week, and even if it were, that’d be a grand total of seven starts and one nine-minute substitute appearance. And while the assist total is worrying, that speaks to a wider failing of Arsenal away from home, which Özil is a part of; but as much a part of as Alexis Sánchez, Petr Cech, Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi.

No, the claim that really must be taken up is the one that Arsenal are “a better side without Özil”. For if this is true, then it makes obvious sense to sell him. Ronay doesn’t provide any evidence to back up his claim, a rhetorical mistake that we try to correct with eighteen year olds, but instead goes into description: “But it’s not to do with running or energy expended on the pitch; more a familiar, and very native lack of curiosity, a complacency, a failure to learn.”

And so what? The point of Özil’s “failure to learn” is not really relevant to the argument whether Arsenal should sell him, and secondly, one would imagine it’s not so much a failure to learn, but rather a style of coaching. Ronay points to De Bruyne and Eriksen, two players who have improved under the strict coaching of Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, whereas Wenger is a lot more lackadaisical.

Indeed, Tim Stillman takes up that point, writing about Alexis and Özil’s imbalancing of the team, in comparison to the likes of Danny Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey:

Welbeck’s fastidiousness means that he can simultaneously play as a second striker and as a screening player when opposing defences look to pass out from the back. Neither Özil nor Alexis offer this quality out of possession. Effectively, the likes of Ramsey, Iwobi and Welbeck, who have rotated the inside forward positions in the opening weeks, are able to play a hybrid role that supports the midfield and the striker, giving the team greater structure.

And Wenger can’t move Özil or Alexis to different positions to improve the structure; Alexis played centre-forward, which worked, and then he no longer wanted to play it. Özil played wide, and leaked his discontent to the press. And while other managers—Guardiola, for example—can build teams around big personalities, that has never been Wenger’s remit, preferring to build stars, rather than buy them.

This is a much more convincing argument about selling Özil; it doesn’t argue that Arsenal are necessarily better without him, but argues that the failings that we see throughout Arsenal’s games could be addressed through his eventual departure (and, one must point out, Alexis’ too).

But the ultimate point here is that, as it stands, Arsenal are not better without Özil. Since Mesut Özil has joined, Arsenal have taken 67% of the points on offer when he has played, taking 59% when he is absent. That’s a difference of 9 points over a season. Leaving Özil out might help the team against Manchester City and Chelsea, because Wenger can use players who he can man-manage, but it hurts against the lesser sides, where Arsenal pick up a majority of their points anyway.

So really, what we’re talking about when we discuss Mesut Özil is not Mesut Özil, but, as with everything at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger.