“Bureaucratic Fools. They don’t know what they’ve got there”. (Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Like the Ark of the Covenant, Mezut Ozil is a misunderstood artifact of enormous value. But Arsene Wenger has him locked away in a box where none of us can see him.
In the Ryan Giggs article I wrote recently (don’t worry, this is a bit shorter) I looked at the attacking output of lots of top players from the present and recent past. Here is the Assists graph for a selection of World Class players.
I’m telling you, this guy is an absolute genius of a player. He’ll never be a prolific scorer of goals. But a genuine Superstar of assists and creativity. Potentially. If he is managed well. Which he hasn’t been at Arsenal.
Ozil is a fragile, delicate talent. He’s not robust physically or mentally. Treat him right and you have an awesome game-changing talent on your side. But neglect and abuse him and he looks like the average, disinterested, uncommitted luxury that many Arsenal fans and most UK football watchers regard him to be.
One of the standouts from the analysis in the Giggs article is how hard it is to generate top class numbers of assists and goals from central midfield areas. Even guys we know to be proper class footballers like Scholes and Iniesta struggle to look good statistically from playing centrally. Wide players (‘wingers’) get more scope to attack and create in dangerous areas. Even allowing for the idea that Ozil is generally given a bit more free rein, and has generally played further forward than Scholes and Iniesta, his generation of assists is fantastic.
So what has gone wrong at Arsenal? This should be a marriage made in heaven, no? Well yes, it should. And it started well enough. Ozil made 12 assists and scored 6 goals in his first season at the Emirates. But most of those came early in the season. His form tailed off as Wenger mis-treated his record buy.
To understand Arsene Wenger you have to understand the difference between Strategy and Tactics.
Strategy is looking at a football team as 3/4/5 year project. Acquiring and developing the talent.
Tactics is everything that goes into a single season. The balance of the squad as the season starts. Squad rotation. Managing training, diet, recovery, medicine and fitness. Plus all the game-day tactics of picking a team, formation, substitutions etc.
A Strategist is a General who plans the broad scope of a military campaign. Arsene Wenger is a strategist.
A Tactician is a battle-field Commander who marshals, inspires and leads his troops into battle. Jose Mourinho is a tactician.
A Lieutenant is a guy down there in the trenches, screaming orders and encouragement. John Terry is a lieutenant.
Wenger is a master strategist. One of the greatest the British game has ever seen. But he is a poor tactician.
The efficiency with which Wenger has run Arsenal strategically is phenomenal. A great measure of strategic performance is to measure results on the pitch against net transfer spending. Arsenal’s record here in Wenger’s time is unsurpassed.
But the other story of Wenger’s Arsenal is how they consistently clutch defeat from the jaws of victory. Great promise goes unfulfilled. The squad is unbalanced. Their players are injured more often than at other clubs.
When they’re good they’re great. But when they’re bad they’re awful. Great = The Invincibles. The attractive attacking football they often play. Awful = blowing a 3 goal lead at home to Anderlecht, a 4 goal lead at Newcastle etc etc. And not winning trophies they should.
The reason they get into these winning positions is because Arsene is a great strategist who puts together squads of rare attacking talent, at an incredible low net cost. The reason they blow these leads, and don’t win leagues or Champions Leagues is that he’s a poor tactician who doesn’t micro-manage games, or players well.
You may not think Alan Smith (the big ex Arsenal striker, not the small feisty ex Leeds & ManU scrapper) is a thrilling TV summariser for SKY, but he’s an intelligent observer of the game. It was Smith who I first heard talk about Wenger’s tactical approach, or rather lack of. Smith says he was surprised to find when he worked with him that Wenger barely talked about tactics, in training or at matches. He believed in putting talented players together and letting them work things out for themselves. He doesn’t believe in giving individual players special treatment.
Giving some players this freedom can reap spectacular dividends. Witness Bergkamp and Henry. But it doesn’t work consistently for defensive units, especially when they lack an on-field lieutenant like Adams or Viera. Nor for occasions when ‘game management’ would be useful, like when you’re three-nil up at home to Anderlecht. It doesn’t work for being productive from set-pieces.
Overall it is an inefficient way to manage a football term in a tactical sense.
I’ll touch much more on the vital difference between Strategy and Tactics in a future article. But for the moment, back to Ozil….
Because Wenger doesn’t appreciate the need to treat different players differently, he has treated Ozil like he was Patrick Viera – ready to run through walls for him, day in day out. But Ozil is not that kind of person or player. He needs to be nurtured, rested, reassured, protected and loved.
Jose Mourinho might not be your idea of a guy with a barrel-load of empathy. But I reckon he’s a lot smarter than his media-baiting public persona would have you believe. Under Mourinho at Real Madrid Ozil started 32% of his match-day involvements on the bench. When he was in the starting 11 he only played the full 90 minutes 35% of the time. His average minutes on the pitch per game for Real Madrid was 71.
Mourinho is a master tactician, the epitome of a footballing battle-field Commander. He knew how to deploy Ozil, nurture him and get the best out of him.
At Arsenal Ozil has only ever started on the bench once in 41 games. He has played the full 90 in 63% of his starts. His average minutes on the pitch are 83. This is madness. Wenger is killing the guy.
[all these stats are for League and Champions League games only]
There’s more though. In the summer Ozil started all 7 of Germany’s games on the way to World Cup glory. Though he came off 4 times he still had to play a punishing average of 94 minutes per match because of the 2 periods of Extra Time Germany were taken to.
Do you recall that it was Ozil who got the winner for Germany in the 29th minute of Extra Time against Algeria in the last 16? Without that goal, who knows, Germany might have finally lost a penalty competition and have gone home in ignominy. Fine margins.
That effort will have left a mark on Ozil though. The depletion of his reserves to get him through those 120 minutes will have been worse than for some of his sturdier comrades. He still had an excellent, if mostly unheralded tournament though. He led the team in Key Passes and Throughballs, while keeping possession with a top-class 87% pass success rate.
The guy is a superstar, even though he’s not always scoring goals and making headlines. But at the end of the World Cup he will have been knackered.
Wenger should have given Ozil an extended summer holiday to recharge his batteries. There was an international break at the start of September, after just 3 Premier League games. Arsenal’s 4th league game was vs Man City on the 13th September, exactly 2 months after the World Cup Final. Ozil could have been given a proper break for 6/7 weeks and come back in for the City game.
Instead, he only missed the Community Shield and the first game of the Prem season vs Palace. He then came in for Arsenal’s 2nd Prem game vs Everton on the 23rd August, and played 6 straight league games. The full 90 minutes in each. Un-frickin-believable!
It is surely not after-timing to say that the knee ligament injury Ozil picked up (in ‘freak circumstances’) vs Chelsea on 5th October (keeping him out for 3/4 months) was more inevitable than death or taxes.
In October 2013 Wenger brought Ozil on as a sub in a Capital One Cup early round game, just 4 days before a league game with Liverpool.
In February this year Wenger allowed Ozil to take a penalty against his old room-mate Manuel Neuer (at 0-0) in the first leg of a Champions League last 16 game at the Emirates. Ozil crumbled mentally after seeing his feeble spot-kick saved.
This is lunacy, madness. It is woeful, dreadful, appalling tactics. And the ruining of a very special talent.
Wenger the strategist has put together a pool of attacking talent at Arsenal that could/should be gelling as one of the most potent attacking forces in World football. With Ozil at its heart pulling the strings, a unit comprising the pace and ability of Sanchez, Giroud, Walcott, Cazorla, Ramsey, Welbeck and the Ox – this should be rivalling the attacking power of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern.
But Arsenal are nowhere near that level. Because they don’t have a solid base of dependable centre-halves and a quality midfield holder. And because the attacking unit needs to be put together. The players need to be fit, managed, motivated and comfortable. They need to be organised tactically. They don’t have that because Wenger is no good at it, nor does he have a strong side-kick to do it for him.
Being a great strategist and a great tactician at the same time is not possible. They are two mutually exclusive mindsets. Like the idea of a person being an introvert and an extrovert. Sir Alex Ferguson, modern English football’s other great strategist delegated most of the training ground and tactical work to strong assistants like Archie Knox, Walter Smith, Carlos Queiroz, Rene Mulensteen and Mike Phelan. Peter Taylor had Brian Clough. Bill Shankly had Bob Paisley.
Pat Rice and Steve Bould seem like solid citizens, but Wenger needs somebody strong to take control of Arsenal tactically. Arsene Wenger is a really good assistant manager away from being one of the great managers in English football history.
And Mezut Ozil is a good assistant manager to Arsene Wenger away from being one of the superstars of world football. Trust me, he is.
[“You want tact, call a tactician. You want an ass nailed, you call Gus Petch”. Intolerable Cruelty, 2003)