On the 28th December 2015, Arsenal beat Bournemouth 2-0 at home in the Premier League. It was a relatively unremarkable game, one that many will have forgotten even this soon after it, with an equally commonplace result; Gabriel scored the first when he headed in a Mesut Özil corner in the 27th minute, before the German got the second himself soon after half-time to complete a pretty comfortable win for the home team over Eddie Howe’s newly-promoted side.
Later that evening on Match of the Day, the BBC’s highlight programme, as Özil slotted his goal home to seal another good performance from him, commentator Jonathan Pearce said something to sum up the campaign which he’s been having – “everything he touches this season seems to turn to gold.” He was right. Up until now, with 20 games of the competition played by all sides, Özil has quite arguably been the league’s stand-out performer. His 19 appearances so far have returned three goals and a staggering 16 assists (the next highest is Kevin De Bruyne’s eight), while his average of 4.6 key passes per 90 is similarly unprecedented by all others.
In comparison to his own past productivity stats he appears to be in the middle of probably his best season too. And that’s not just since his move to Arsenal in September 2013, but over his whole time as a footballer. He’s already only one off his best assist total (17) in a league season since joining Real Madrid in 2010/11, his key passes per 90 are higher than they’ve ever been before, and his total amount of chances created, bar a significant minute-restricting injury, are projected to comfortably surpass the 119 he got during his first season in Spain.
Such numbers – and that comment from Pearce – perfectly fit the general narrative surrounding Özil. He struggled in his first two seasons in England, for whatever reason, but now he’s playing at a completely new level and all these assists prove that he’s returned to probably being the best number 10 in the world again. That’s true, right? Well, that’s what we’re here to discuss.
First of all, let’s look at the stats. In terms of chance creation, there’s no doubt that his actual production figures have gone up this season: there’s been a 42% increase in his key passes per 90 when compared to the average of his first two years at Arsenal, while his assists per 90 (rather than a flat-out total to allow for a better comparison) have also risen by a quite incredible 179% in comparison to those same two seasons. That increase in key passes is significant albeit reasonably standard, although such a huge leap in the assists needs further examining.
There are a couple of possible explanations for that escalation to occur. One of those is down to Özil creating more shooting opportunities, or a better quality of chances, or both, with his passing. The second reason, which links into the first but isn’t something that the German himself can guarantee, is that his teammates are converting his created chances at a higher rate. Now, both of those are true, but the second is overwhelmingly the case – in his first two seasons Özil’s chances were scored at an average of just 9.5%; this season it’s doubled to 19.0%.
Whether one of those is really low or the other is really high is debatable (based on Özil’s past stats it’s most likely a case of both), but that’s not the point right now. Instead, the point is that assist stats can be somewhat volatile, unrepeatable, and too largely dependent on the finisher actually putting the ball in the back of the net to be of great use unless given lots of context and used as part of a large sample size (Özil’s incredible career record as a whole is much more valid than just one or two seasons, for example). Key pass stats aren’t necessarily perfect either, as they similarly don’t take into account the quality of the chance created, though they’re definitely more repeatable and have greater use than their counterpart.
If you use those to demonstrate it, rather than the assist stats which are being repeatedly touted, Özil is still having a sensational season. But while there’s been that big 42% increase compared to the average of his last two seasons, this notion that he was poor and struggled on the creativity front in those years seems a little bit crazy when you put it into perspective with other players. His lowest for either season, 3.2 key passes per 90, would still make him the sixth-highest (excluding anyone who’s played less than 500 minutes) creator, drawn with David Silva, in the current campaign up until now.
That was with injuries and while regularly being played out on the wing where he’s far less effective, as well. Not to mention, in typical Arsenal fashion, regular injuries to his attacking teammates: although that’s also happened this season, of course, and without comparing it very specifically that’s tough to isolate as a factor. Maybe his misleading assist totals for those seasons didn’t reach double figures, but even with those factors to consider he was still at least up there with the best producers of chances.
And yet, to reduce him to just stats, highlight reels and what he does on the ball is to miss half of the beauty of Özil – because while everything he touches might turn to gold, most of the things that he doesn’t touch do as well. It’s off-the-ball stuff which is far less eye-catching and far less quantified than key passes and assists, things that he’s been doing since his very first game for Arsenal, albeit actions which, unless you carefully watch each and every match in full, you’ll probably miss. Even then it’s quite easy to miss, too.
The term ‘selfless’ feels like a very apt one to describe his game with. As a number 10, Özil is pretty damn unique in that regard. Where other playmakers such as Isco and Silva (as they particularly showed during their time playing in Manuel Pellegrini’s 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2 at Málaga and Man City respectively) thrive at moving from wide areas into central ones where they can be of greater danger, Özil does the opposite more than anyone. These subtle runs away from goal drag opposition players away with him or just leave them with nobody to mark, while opening up spaces for midfield runners to burst into or wingers to cut inside into and expose.
Those movements are part of the reason why individuals like Aaron Ramsey and Cristiano Ronaldo have benefitted so much from playing alongside him. But it’s also the team as a whole which gains from it, and he’s quite possibly the best in the world at helping a side to maintain their attacking balance. When Olivier Giroud comes short, Özil often pushes forward beyond him; when Alexis Sánchez comes in off the wing onto his right foot, he’s probably out towards the left somewhere allowing the Chilean to do so.
At the same time as raising the level of his teammates, there’s perhaps an argument to be made that Özil’s success as a number 10 is also dependent on them to a greater extent than the majority of playmakers because of his style. Build a team around him – or give him players with a better understanding of the game who are on the same wavelength as him – and you’ll bring out his very best. If not, other players may not be able to take full advantage of his talent and space creation without time to adapt.
So even if he wasn’t at his absolute best in 2013/14 and 2014/15 (though again, contrary to the lazy narrative he was still regularly showing himself as one of the most creative and intelligent number 10s in the world in that time anyway), that, alongside the injuries and being played out wide, could be a reason why. Maybe it wasn’t him who needed to adapt to Arsenal, but Arsenal who needed to adapt to him.
In short, though, Özil has been, still is, and will continue to be a great facilitator of unbelievable talent and intelligence. It’s not just that he allows players to do what they do best, it’s that he recognises where space is going to be and controls the game in a manner which leads to his team getting into those areas. He is selfless, yes, yet he’s simultaneously a dictator. He runs the whole attack. He did so at Real Madrid, and he’s been doing it at Arsenal for a long time now. It’s just finally come to full fruition. And you don’t need assist stats to prove that.