Why is Ozil fading?
After another disappointing performance from Mesut Ozil at the weekend, the Arsenal playmaker's slump in form has been the focus of much discussion. Adam Bate looks at the Premier League tracking data to put some meat on the bones of the debate...
By Adam Bate with Sam Kallen (graphics)
Last Updated: 22/02/14 1:15pm
Amid the excitement that greeted his August arrival, Mesut Ozil felt like more than just another player. Here was a symbol of Arsenal's cash-rich future. This was a signing to sweep away the gloom of that opening day defeat to Aston Villa and carry the Gunners into the heart of a genuine title race. So it is somehow appropriate that Ozil's waning form should be intertwined with the team's fading dream of topping the Premier League table.
Things could hardly have started better with Ozil a conspicuously transformative figure in Arsenal's turnaround. An assist on debut at Sunderland was followed by two more on his home bow. Indeed, the seven chances created in that performance against Stoke remains the most by anyone at the Emirates Stadium so far this season. The German was widely regarded as the catalyst for a fine run of form that saw Arsenal win six and draw one of his first seven Premier League games for the club.
Of course, statistics only tell part of the story. To see Ozil in action is art not science. Ballet, poetry, take your pick. There is the sublime touch and expert weight of pass. The serene movements as he glides around the pitch, barely seeming to leave an imprint on the turf. But the rhythm is not flowing as it once did. The end-product of goals and assists is proving a chore rather than an inevitable consequence of his brilliance. The question that needs answering is simple: "Why?"
Perhaps the starting point of the search for an explanation comes from looking back to Ozil's three-year stay at Real Madrid. The former Werder Bremen playmaker was a popular figure at the Bernabeu with supporters so incensed by talk of his sale that calls for him to stay at the club were even a feature of Gareth Bale's stage-managed welcoming party. Cristiano Ronaldo was candid in his belief that Ozil's exit would be a bad thing for both him and the team, while Jose Mourinho has been effusive in his praise of the player's efforts in the Spanish capital: The best No 10 in the world.
And yet, while Ozil's status as a world-class player is not in dispute, there is a danger in airbrushing out the negatives. For all the talk of England's island mentality and suspicion of things from abroad, there is also a wide-eyed wonder when genuine superstars arrive on these shores. But to paint his time at Real as an unqualified success and his relationship with Mourinho as wholly positive, would be inaccurate. In fact, that was simply not the case.
Ozil endured a difficult start to the 2012/13 season at the Bernabeu, with his place under threat following the arrival of Luka Modric from Tottenham. Accused of being on the periphery of games when things weren't going to plan, he suffered the ignominy of being substituted at half time against Sevilla, Deportivo La Coruna and Real Betis in late 2012. When he did remain on the field, there was a tendency to fade late on in games and he rarely seemed in peak physical condition.
Fitness is at the heart of this issue. "I can't believe there are players aged 23, 24, 25 or 26 who are unable to play twice in four days," Mourinho complained last season as relations with his Real Madrid players became particularly fraught. Ozil is unlikely to have been far from his thoughts. For all his qualities, like many precious things in this life, the attacking midfielder was a fragile creature. Perhaps that goes some way to explaining why he has become a fading force at Arsenal.
It is perfectly understandable why Arsene Wenger should have been tempted to race his prize stallion rather harder than Mourinho had elected to in Madrid. With Arsenal leading the way for much of the winter, the veteran boss has not felt in a position to subject his £42million signing to the squad rotation process. As a result, despite the assertion that Ozil has played 35 matches for club and country compared to 32 this time last season, that particular comparison is skewed.
Minutes rather than appearances are the currency that players' bodies must deal in. Ozil played 2036 of them in La Liga last season but has already racked up 1855 league minutes this time around. Crucially, he has played the full 90 minutes on 11 occasions for Arsenal so far this Premier League season. That's something he was never asked to do in any one of his three years under Mourinho at Real Madrid.
As a consequence, Ozil looks to be struggling. The physical demands of the Premier League are known to be significant and the Germany international is facing them for the first time. Unlike every other campaign of his career, there is no winter break to provide respite and a World Cup in Brazil looms large. The Premier League tracking data that analyses distances covered as well as the speed and frequency of players' sprints, reveals a startling downturn in Ozil's high-intensity activity.
Back in October when Ozil scored twice in a 4-1 win over Norwich, the tracking data shows that he made 67 sprints during the game. In early November, he hit new heights with 71 sprints in a 2-0 home win over Liverpool that put the Gunners five points clear at the top of the Premier League table. However, Arsenal were beaten next time out against Manchester United and things haven't looked quite so rosy since. Ozil has not performed 50 sprints in a match since that Liverpool game.
Most alarmingly of all, the trend continues. Since Boxing Day, Ozil has not produced more than 40 sprints in a match with his tally of 27 in 84 minutes against Crystal Palace representing a new low. Against Liverpool on Saturday, he sprinted just 22 times before being substituted shortly after the hour mark. "He didn't have the best of games, but that can happen," said Wenger. "He works very hard to adapt to the physical level of the Premier League."
In truth, Ozil's overall distance covered in matches has remained at broadly similar levels. However, it is those intense runs at speed that are needed - both forward and back - to create the space when attacking or track the runner when defending. They are the movements that make the difference and they are precisely the ones that can become less frequent when a player is suffering from fatigue.
Suddenly new questions arise. Is there an attitude problem? What about that body language? How useful are 'assists per 90 minutes' stats when you can't complete a full game? Comments from the past can be revisited. "I think I know how to try to stop him being in the game for 90 minutes, with 90 minutes of direct influence on the match," said Mourinho in December. "Isco and Ozil have to learn how to defend. They must work defensively," said Carlo Ancelotti in the Autumn.
And yet, Ozil remains the same player and at 25 this should surely be regarded as a lull rather than anything approaching decline. The great players who thrill and delight should be cherished. Like the lover put on a pedestal, now Arsenal fans are getting the warts-and-all version. To misquote Marilyn Monroe, if you can't handle him at his worst, then you don't deserve him at his best. After all, as the evidence suggests, maybe Mesut Ozil just needs a rest?