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Different Mesut Özil role highlights Unai Emery changes as Arsenal draw with Liverpool

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Mesut Özil’s role highlights some of the changes Unai Emery has made at Arsenal.

Arsenal FC v Liverpool FC - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Last season, as Arsenal drew at home with Liverpool, Mesut Özil took centre stage. Collecting possession, he played a one-two with Alexandre Lacazette and, deploying the trademark Özil chop, dinked his shot over Simon Mignolet to make it 3-2 to Arsenal, having been 2-0 down. Arsenal couldn’t hold on—Roberto Firmino’s shot was weakly parried by Petr Cech, denying Özil the narrative that he deserved around last season’s fixture.

This season, Özil was less of a presence to the narrative. At one moment in the first half, Lee Dixon demanded to know where “Özil was...this is a big game, it’s time to produce.” His fellow co-commentator, Graeme Le Saux, countered Dixon’s outrage with a measured point: that Özil, having found it difficult to get into the game, was actually taking up positions that demanded that Liverpool mark him, allowing other players to find space. One player who benefited from this early movement was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Özil drifted out to the left, allowing Aubameyang to take up a more central position in a sort of lopsided 442, and the balance of Arsenal’s attack in the first half was probably at it’s best because of this, though it is a situation that still demands a long-term answer.

Özil found it difficult to get into the game in part because of the new restraints Unai Emery has put on him. Unlike Arsène Wenger, Emery doesn't give Özil vertical freedom. In the past, when Özil wouldn’t be getting the ball from the midfield, he would drop into deeper positions and play from there. Emery, though, wants his #10 to stay high up the pitch, and so Özil rarely comes deeper. This is compounded by how Arsenal build play, especially under pressure. Emery’s preferred buildup features the goalkeeper playing the two centre backs, who then play into midfield. They then play to the full backs who progress the ball inside to the two wide midfielders, who drift into central positions. If Arsenal can’t play to the dual number 6’s, then the centre backs play to the full backs, to play from there.

Thus, as opposed to previous years, the #10 only comes into play late in the build-up, and we can see this in Özil’s involvement and pass numbers, which are down from previous years. In part, this is due to Özil being deployed on the right hand side by Unai Emery, but even in his best games at #10 this season, his overall pass numbers are down from where they were last season. Last week’s match against Crystal Palace was the nadir; having been excellent against Leicester, he was completely uninvolved against Palace, and subbed off as Arsenal sought to see out a one-goal lead.

Against Liverpool, though, Özil began to exert his presence on the game from higher up the pitch. In part, this was due to Arsenal winning the midfield. After early exchanges, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira began to control the midfield in a way that Torreira and Mattéo Guendouzi never did against Crystal Palace. This is reflected in who passed Özil the ball: against Liverpool, Xhaka found Özil 11 times, Torreira found Özil 8 times, and the two full backs, Kolasinac and Bellerín, passed to Özil 6 times each. Against Crystal Palace, the top passer to Özil was Lacazette, at 7 passes; then, Rob Holding, with 4 passes, which isn’t what you want.

Özil only made 46 passes last night—fewer passes than three of Arsenal’s back four—but he also created 4 chances (and should be credited with a 5th—his backheel for Aubameyang), and by staying higher up the pitch, he gave Arsenal a spare man in attack with his lateral movement. It was less eye-grabbing than his goal against Liverpool last season, but in that match, Özil only created one chance.