The need of Mesut Ozil
Many people are saying that Arsenal weren’t in need of a player like Ozil. First of all, when a player is one of the best players in the world, you will most likely need him. Second of all, Arsenal last season had an issue of lacking directness from midfield. This is because players like Cazorla, Wilshere, and Ramsey like to come towards the ball and build the play rather than make runs in the gaps of the defense. Rosicky is Arsenal’s midfielder who did the best job of providing directness, but has had injury problems. Rosicky likes to dribble directly at a defense and go passed players, and he also makes runs in behind the defense. A problem with Rosicky though, is his offensive positioning. He looks to find space in between the midfielders and defenders of the opponents but he doesn’t do the best job of getting in a position within that space where a passing lane to him is created so he can receive the ball.
This type of play is exactly what Ozil can provide.
The picture above is one of Ozil vs Australia in the 2010 World Cup, where he first became known worldwide. In the picture, Ozil spotted a gap in the defense and made a run from midfield in behind the defense. He received a great ball but couldn’t finish it off. Ozil has the speed and the intelligence to make defenses pay for leaving gaps open, which other Arsenal midfielders lack. He will continuously look to exploit these gaps and either provide an assist or finish it himself. Ozil’s finishing has not been the best throughout his career, but last year he talked about really working on his finishing so he can score more goals, and last season proves he did just that. In the 2011/2012 season he scored 4 goals in the 2,570 minutes he played. In the 2012/2013 season he more than doubled that figure with 9 goals in the 2,058 minutes he played, and he will only keep improving.
Here is a video of Gary Neville analyzing the problems with lack of penetration and directness from the midfield of Arsenal. He also talks about how Arsenal teams of the past were great attacking teams who were very penetrative.
Ozil has world class touch and technique, but really his very best quality is his intelligence. He is an incredibly intelligent play maker. He doesn’t even need to touch the ball to create goal scoring opportunities.
Here is one example of his great movement. This is Germany vs Holland in the EURO 2012 tournament. In the red circle is Ozil, what he did here was he drifted out to wide positions, and when he did that the defensive midfielders of Holland (in the yellow) were worried that he would overload the flanks with Muller and have a 2v1 vs the fullback. So Ozil dragged the defensive midfielders (both of them came over to that side because Khedira was there too, Sneijder wasn’t tracking him) over to the side of the field, this left enormous amounts of space (in the blue) for Schweinsteiger to run into. When a world class player like Schweinsteiger has that much space in front of your goal, it will be dangerous. Schweinsteiger here played Gomez (in the white) through the defense and Gomez scored the first goal of the game.
Here is another example from the same match. Ozil (in the red) drifted out wide once again and dragged one of the defensive midfielders (De Jong) with him, this left Van Bommel covering large amounts of space infront of his 4 defenders. Schweinsteiger ran into this pocket of space (blue) that Ozil created and once again played Gomez through to score and give Germany the 2-0 lead. In this game Ozil was rated the flop of the match in Germany. This is because the general public don’t realize his influence on a match if he doesn’t get an assist or a goal, but in reality he created both of those Germany goals.
Here is an example of Ozil finding space and having good positioning. As you can see, Ozil has found a lot of space between the midfielders and defenders of the opponents, but what makes the difference is his positioning within that space so he can receive the ball. He moved directly in line with the center back (off screen) and received the ball in a clear passing lane. Once Ozil is in between these lines, even if its more compact than in the picture shown above, he has world class control and technique and can tear teams apart with passes, dribbling, or shooting from within this space.
Ozil’s work rate
As you can tell, Ozil has a great offensive work rate, constantly moving and creating/attacking spaces, but the main fault in his game is his defensive work rate. He can drift in and out of games because he fails to mark opponents defensive midfielders or track back defensively. This is one of the main reasons Carlo Ancelotti felt that Ozil didn’t fit into his squad. Cristiano Ronaldo is also not very active defensively, and a top tier team can’t afford to have two players not working on defense.
The way Ancelotti’s new system at Madrid is set up is in a 4-2-3-1/4-2-2-2 sort of mix.
In offense, Ronaldo would drift out wide to the left where he enjoys playing the most and Isco would come inside off of the left into a more central playmaker role. On the right, the right midfielder will move up and down that flank providing directness and also some width, while sometimes being able to cut inside and attack that “14.5 Zone” similar to Robben. This makes Madrid look like the similar sort of 4-2-3-1 shape, with one of the defensive midfielders also joining the attack, from last season. On defense, Isco leaves the central role and moves out to the left and defends that flank because he has a better defensive work rate than Ronaldo or Ozil. Ronaldo can stay up top with Benzema and defend vs. opponent center backs, which makes Madrid look like a 4-2-2-2 or 4-4-2 in defense. In order for Ozil to play the central play maker role he enjoys, he would have to work very hard defensively, which is why he doesn’t fit into the system. The system is built around Cristiano and making up for his lack of defensive work rate.
In the 2011 Champions League semifinals vs Bayern Munich, Ozil’s lack of defensive work rate was exposed by his opposite central play maker, Toni Kroos. Ozil stayed really close to the striker in the match, while Kroos noticed this and dropped deeper, this created a 3vs2 situation in the center of midfield in favor of Bayern Munich. This caused Madrid to be overrun in midfield by Munich. Madrid ended up losing on penalties to Bayern in that years semifinals.
Arsenal’s Defensive Midfielders
Arsenal has recently re-signed Flamini for free after he left AC Milan. Flamini made his debut vs. Tottenham in Arsenal’s 3rd match of the 2013/2014 season. One thing that was immediately noticeable was how much Arsenal improved defensively when he came onto the field.
Usually, when Ramsey and Wilshere play together as defensive midfielders in a double pivot, they aren’t very good defensively. They aren’t very good at blocking passing lanes and making interceptions.
This is Wilshere and Ramsey vs. Tottenham in match day 3 of the 13/14 season. Here they let 3 Spurs players in between the Arsenal midfield and defensive lines. Here Chadli (in yellow furthest down in picture) receives the ball and turns. He begins running at the defense with 2 teammates against just Arsenal’s two center backs. Here Mertesacker makes a great tackle on Chadli to stop this attack. In match day 1 of the 13/14 season Aston Villa earned a penalty (and scored) when Wilshere and Ramsey were poorly positioned and got played through. Agbonlahor received the ball in between the lines and ran passed Koscielny and was brought down by Szczesny for the penalty.
In that game vs. Tottenham, Wilshere was subbed off for Flamini with around 10 minutes to go in the first half because he was feeling sick. Flamini came on and there was immediately a difference on defense. Here you can see that Flamini was sitting a bit deeper, just infront of the Arsenal back 4, protecting the area in between the lines. Highlighted with the white circle is Flamini blocking the passing lane into the midfielder in between Arsenal’s lines, this forced Tottenham to play the ball wide. When Tottenham played it wide, space was more congested because they were forced against the sideline and Arsenal won the ball and almost scored off the break. Another noticeable thing was when Tottenham wingers got down the flanks and were in dangerous crossing positions, Flamini immediately dropped just inside or on the edge of the box. When Wilshere or Ramsey play they are usually very slow to cover that area, that area is very dangerous because a cross can come in and pick out a midfielder runner, or a striker can quickly drop off and receive a cutback cross and try to finish it while the defenders are still sprinting towards goal with their momentum. During this game Arsene ended up spending the last few minutes of the game with 6 defenders in the back line. He said after the game that he did this because he was expecting a lot of crosses into the box, and he was correct. Due to Flamini and the rest of the team doing so well at forcing Tottenham wide, they knew the attacks of Tottenham in the last few minutes would come from wide positions, and the back 6 did its job and sealed the 1-0 win.
Arteta as a Defensive Midfielder, and Flamini in offense
Flamini did well on defense as a defensive midfielder for Arsenal, but was very poor on offense. These days the best defensive midfielders are skilled in both offense and defense. Once Arsenal had the ball and began building play, Flamini would run away from the ball. He would move high up the field and leave the center backs. This is very bad positioning for a defensive midfielder. If Arsenal were to be put under intense pressure, they would need a defensive midfielder pivot with great control, passing, and positioning to help them play out of the pressure. Flamini’s positioning wasn’t the best and can be exploited if Arsenal are put under pressure.
Here is a comparison. The yellow circle is showing where I noticed Flamini would run into, This leaves the center backs by themselves and causes a disconnect between the defense and the midfield. Arteta is very skilled on the ball and can play very well under pressure. He takes up the correct position as a midfield pivot, just in front of the center backs able to support anyone who needs somebody to pass to under pressure. When Arteta receives the ball in front of the defense like that, he can play very accurate long balls to the wingers or the striker. He can also play quick short passes to the other central midfielders, all the defenders, and the goalkeeper. He is the center of the build up play and a very important player. Flamini lacks the great ball control and passing to be able to play this role effectively, but he is good defensively.
This image shows how skilled Arteta is on defense. He is by far Arsenal’s best defensive midfielder, even though that’s not the position he played most of his career. On defense, he also sits just in front of the back 4 and covers passing lanes very well. In this image, shown with the red circle and arrow, Arteta moves his body and closes down the player on the ball while simultaneously blocking him with his body from passing to the 3 open Spurs players across the field. Arteta has great defensive stats. He has 108 tackles and 97 interceptions, both the highest in the squad. He uses his body well to block passes into the center of the field and forces players towards the sidelines or towards the side with less teammates of the opponent. He controls teams while on defense, very intelligently using his positioning. Arteta rarely flies into a player going in for a tackle, what he does is block off options using his body while at the same time closing down the player, this gives the opponent no options and less space. When Arteta does this, he waits for the opponent to make a mistake and then steals the ball off of him. In transition defense, if he can, Arteta immediately closes down the player on the ball and either doesn’t let him turn, or if he has already turned, forces him to the side of the field with less teammates using his body to block off the other passes. This makes transition defense a lot easier on Arsenal and provides more time for other players to get back. Arteta himself said that he has been watching how players like Busquets, Alonso, and Carrick play so he can play the same way for Arsenal, and he does it very well.
Here are two great videos analyzing how Busquets of Barcelona plays in both attack and in defense, he is the best player in the world for the role Arteta is trying to play, and it breaks down what he does.
Walcott and Giroud
This image highlights how Giroud occupies two center backs at the same time, while Walcott provides directness and depth to the Arsenal attack with his speed. Giroud is very good at occupying two center backs at the same time. He began the attack next to the left center back, Vertonghen, and once Rosicky got the ball, he quickly shifted over to the other center back, Dawson. This makes the two center backs constantly worried about where Giroud is. Once he shifted across, Giroud began making a run and Dawson followed him while the rest of the defense held the line, this left Walcott onside. Walcott quickly made a run towards the corner and received the ball, then he crossed it to Giroud who scored. Giroud is big and strong and does well in link up play, as well as in the air. Giroud is known for scoring a lot of goals in his second seasons with clubs and it looks like that’s what will happen this season with Arsenal. He has very intelligent movement with a great work rate, but is a bit slow. When he occupies the center backs this also gives extra space to the players behind him, like the central play maker, because he doesn’t have to worry about the central defenders leaving Giroud. Usually what teams will do to counter players like Giroud is play with a high line and get the big and slow center forward away from their goal. The problem with that is that you are playing a high line against the quickest winger in the league, with Theo Walcott. Walcott creates depth by being direct and making runs, this pushes teams back because they are scared of his pace. This gets Giroud and the rest of the team closer to the goal. Walcott provides width on the flank as well. When he is wide, the defense has to make sure a defender is near him, this stretches the defense of the opponents laterally, providing more gaps in between players for passes, dribbling, or shooting. Walcott and Gibbs provide most of the width for Arsenal.
Cazorla and Transition Defense
Cazorla has been playing a lot for Arsenal on the left flank. Cazorla drifts very centrally during the game and offers an extra central midfielder and helps keep possession vs. the opponents. Cazorla may not be very direct but he does offer game control near the opponents goal. He doesn’t have the engine to get up and down the field and be the orchestrator of the squad, but he has excellent dribbling and passing. He can go passed players and cause defenses to become unorganized, he can also dribble very well to keep the ball, so he isn’t dispossessed very often. If he ever gets an open look at goal he has excellent shooting from distance and has scored a couple from range for Arsenal. He also has great passing technique and can play players through defenses very well. Due to Cazorla drifting inside so much, this means there is a lack of width on the left side, which is needed to stretch teams and make play easier for the team. This is where Gibbs comes in. Gibbs motors up and down the left hand side of the field, providing width, crosses, and runs.
Circled in yellow is Gibbs. When the ball is lost he runs back down the left flank while the defensive midfielder (Flamini here), Ramsey, and the other 3 defenders of the back 4 hold off the counter attack. A back 3 with a defensive midfielder just ahead along with Gibbs and an engine box-to-box type midfielder like Ramsey getting back is a very good base for a transition defense. A back 3 can be exploited with far post crosses though so its not perfectly solid. Ramsey plays a huge part for this team both in attack and defense. He moves up and down the field helping build play and keep the ball, along with making runs in behind the defense when he can. He is the orchestrator of the team, he connects the team with his engine, which is very important because Ozil has been known to cause a disconnect in his team between the defensive midfielders and attacking midfielders because he stays up so high. This is a similar role Xavi used to play at Barca under Pep, he would move the team up and down the field, exploiting gaps in the defense with his runs, while also getting back in transition defense. Playing this role takes a lot of technique, intelligence, and endurance. Wilshere and Ramsey like to play this similar role but as for now Ramsey is in the better form so he starts in this role.
Building from the back
This season against Fullham and Tottenham there have been great moments of Arsenal building from the back, even when under pressure. The bravery of doing this has amazing rewards in the game. You can’t expect the passes to be 100% accurate every time, so mistakes will happen, but Arsenal must keep believing in themselves and playing in this way cause it will pay off immensely. Mertesacker, Koscielny, and Arteta all have good passing and composure on the ball, so they are able to play this way. Szczesny has also impressed with his passing under pressure so its definitely worth playing this way. Building from the back has many benefits. Deciding to build from the back means you will have more of the ball, but on the other hand, if Szczesny lobs it up field, the ball will most likely be lost. When Szczesny kicks the ball long, Arsenal’s attackers are back pedaling to get into a position to jump and challenge for the ball, while the opponents are getting a running start towards to oncoming long ball, most of the time they will win. Once the opponent wins the ball from the long pass, they will be able to attack an unorganized Arsenal defense, because they had just lost the ball and it is like a quick counter attack. This turns the tempo of the game into a very transitional type of game, where Arsenal aren’t in as much control as before and its a more dangerous match. If Arsenal continue to play out of the back under pressure then eventually the opposition will get tired. This will make it easier to play against the opponents, creates more gaps in the opponents defense, and make it easier to close out games vs. tired opposition.
This is a great video of Neville analyzing how Barcelona builds from the back and the risks/benefits of it.
These two are videos made by DezilDez [@DezilDez on twitter] highlighting Arsenal building from the back in the match against Fullham.
One last thing to mention, a great part about Arsenal in this 2013/2014 season is that this is the first season in a long while where they haven’t lost any major star players from their squad. For the past few seasons they have been losing their captains and their best players. This season the only losses worth mentioning are Chamakh to Crystal Palace and Gervinho to Roma, on top of those players being sold they signed Ozil. This makes the squad feel together, they already know how to play with each other from the last season so this season they will be even stronger. Now they have a strong base to the squad and brought in a world class player in Ozil, Arsenal are finally starting to turn things around.