The Özil Yin and the Alexis Yang
Since Arsenal playmaker Mesut Özil returned to full-time action in late January, questions have arisen about his compatibility with new teammate Alexis. The two have joined forces in seven matches in 2015, during which Alexis has scored just one goal. That’s a significant dropoff from his 13-goal production in 18 games without Özil.
This trend has troubled some supporters and commentators, because they see the integration of these two stars as the key to Arsenal’s progress. After all, the club paid the two highest transfer fees in the club’s history in 2013 and 2014, respectively, to acquire these remarkable players. In the process, Arsenal signaled its reemergence as a prime destination for world-class talent.
These concerns are misplaced. That’s because seven matches, plus 531 minutes in eight matches in fall 2014, don’t represent a large enough sample size to declare the two mismatched. More to the point, a close study of their playing styles and ability suggests that the two can emerge as ideal complements.
Playing personalities that jibe
Armchair psychoanalysis of professional athletes is always questionable. We’ve never spoken with them, and, by and large, we wouldn’t be qualified to draw clinical conclusions even if we had met them. We are also wrong to expect elite athletes to behave like we would in high-stakes performance environments; as I’ve written in “Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not,” their success depends on their acting not like us.
That said, we can observe their playing personalities. Alexis is all visible action, taking on defenders, pressing with abandon, relishing the spolight. Özil operates in the shadows, exploiting the space no one else sees, directing his teammates into promising positions for themselves, deflecting the attention.
These descriptions give rise to an interesting analysis of Alexis as extrovert and Özil as introvert. FourFourTwo’s Chas Newly-Burden lays out this case in a compelling fashion in “Özil, Ronaldo, and Football’s Distrust of Introverts.”
Because football is a team game, though, what matters is how the players work together. Do their styles, preferences, and abilities — combined and integrated with those of their teammates — enhance Arsenal’s chances of success?
Reasonable supporters, football experts, and appreciators of athletic skill and choreography can’t honestly conclude that Arsenal would be a better side without Alexis and/or Özil. The suggestion that the two can’t flourish also ignores substantial evidence.
In addition to raising the squad’s overall levels of quality and play, Özil and Alexis are an almost ideal attacking partnership. It’s been argued that Alexis’s reluctance to stay in wide areas, shown by his tendency to dribble toward the center, often crowds Özil out of the Arsenal attack. With a less imaginative playmaker, that might be a legitimate concern. But thanks to Özil’s vision and refined sense of playing space, Alexis’s forays actually create the conditions in which Özil thrives.
Alexis’s zealous excursions, even when they aren’t successful, force defenses to change their shapes. In the process, they leave space unoccupied, and Özil is probably the best in the world at identifying that space before anyone else and in exploiting the resulting weakness.
The most striking recent example of this phenomenon occurred in Monaco during the second leg of Arsenal’s 2-0 win in the Champions League Round of 16. The play preceded Arsenal’s second goal and appears in this video starting at the 8:25 mark.
For the entire match, Monaco had been surrounding Alexis with two, three, and sometimes four players. Özil recognized this tendency and the weakness it created elsewhere.
In this instance, Özil has the ball when Alexis drifts parallel to goal, just outsize the penalty area. Monaco midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia is between the two Arsenal players, but that’s not enough coverage to execute Monaco’s gameplan.
So Monaco’s right midfielder Dirar and right back Fabinho both step toward Alexis. This leaves a gaping hole down Arsenal’s left for left back Nacho Monreal to exploit. Özil spots the space and Monreal’s run and lifts a pass over all the Monaco defenders, catching Monreal in stride and allowing him to cut the ball back to Theo Walcott. Walcott’s shot off the post rebounds to Aaron Ramsey, who shoots home.
Adapting to opponents’ adaptations
This combination of awareness and skill is essential because the majority of opponents, like Monaco, are now hyper-conscious of the threat Alexis poses. Premier League sides Crystal Palace, Everton, and Newcastle were all notable in their focus on Alexis, double- and triple-teaming him in an apparent effort to force other Arsenal players to beat them. Indeed, center forward Olivier Giroud’s impressive productivity in recent matches might be a consequence of this defensive attention on Alexis.
The player heatmaps and other visualizations on whoscored.com (originating with OptaSports) and the match chalkboards on Arsenal.com show the priority many opponents are now placing on stopping Alexis. Everton sent out three defensive-minded central midfielders, Gareth Barry, James McCarthy, and Muhamed Besic, two of whom largely focused on Alexis’s side of the pitch, Arsenal’s left. All but one of Barry’s and McCarthy’s successful tackles occurred on that side, and all their interceptions happened there.
Arsenal varied its attacks as a result. It pushed forward on its left 37 percent of the time, right 37 percent, and centrally 27 percent.
Against Crystal Palace, the attacks went predominantly down the left (again, 37 percent), where Alexis spent most of his time. Palace’s primary method of coping with Alexis was to foul him. He drew four fouls, the most among Arsenal players in that match, contributing to his total of 57. That’s the fourth-highest figure in the Premier League. (Stats via OptaSports from whoscored.com and from PremierLeague.com.)
These decisions by opponents might be related to Alexis’s reduced goalscoring, as much if not more than his tiring or misfiring are. Whatever the mix of factors, the genius and skill of Özil have intervened to provide the perfect complement and to lead Arsenal to success so far in 2015.