Wenger confident that under-fire Ozil can be equal of City superstars
Arsenal manager defends German playmaker and insists he is not a passenger but a man for big games
The correlation between Arsenal’s most resilient recent away performance and the absence of Mesut Ozil was lost on few at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. Fairly or not, the words ‘passenger’ and ‘Ozil’ have featured in the same sentence with regularity during 2017 and, given both Manchester City’s form and Arsenal’s goalless draw at Chelsea, is this one afternoon when languid creativity might be considered secondary to more basic needs?
Evidently not. Unless Arsene Wenger has been indulging in a grand bluff, there is not even a question mark in his mind. Ozil will start and, in the view of his perennially optimistic manager, is well capable today of delivering a performance comparable with anything De Bruyne, Aguero, Silva and Co might produce.
“I think so – every big player wants to play big games and this is a big game,” said Wenger. “Ozil at the moment is in very good shape physically. People speak about Alexis Sanchez but, for us, Ozil’s performance will be important as well. He contributes a lot to the way we play. He can be an asset every time we attack because he’s a guy who can create chances.”
The evidence of the Chelsea game was also put to Wenger. There is a plausible theory that Arsenal would simply not have been capable of delivering such a defensively cohesive display with Ozil in the team. The counter-argument, though, was obvious enough.
Arsenal did deliver comparable performances at the end of the last season, especially in the FA Cup semi-final and final, when Ozil was still a central figure. Wenger, who thinks that attack is often the best form of defence, is naturally taking the later frame of reference.
“People go quickly to conclusions,” he said. “Last year we played the last 11 games and won 10. You can always find the example. People have opinions and sometimes they are right and sometimes they are not always proven right on the longer period. You need players who have quality and Ozil is one of the best players in the world.”
Wider club statistics provide only limited evidence for Wenger’s theory, although they do support the idea that he is now again approaching his best. Ozil had not delivered a goal or assist until the 5-2 win against Everton last month but he delivered one of each in that match and then another assist against Swansea City last week. Arsenal’s overall win percentage since he arrived at the club has also risen to above 60 per cent with him in the team from around 57 per cent without him.
Ozil’s perennially debated impact, then, has been positive but hardly transformative in the mould so far this season of a Harry Kane or Kevin De Bruyne.
Similar can be said for Sanchez, who is also almost certain to start today despite rather different concerns about his potential contribution.
Wenger has repeatedly said that Manchester City’s £60million summer attempt to sign Sanchez will not impact upon his performance this afternoon. Yet he said the same about Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain just before the transfer window closed in August and it was hard to watch their 4-0 defeat at Arsenal without concluding that his faith was badly misguided.
There is surely a difference between what Wenger thinks should happen and the reality of any given situation, and with Manchester City expected to return for Sanchez next year, the danger of some loss of focus is obvious. It has also been hard so far this season to find any substantial vindication for the decision to turn down City’s Sanchez offer.
Yes, he has produced glimpses of real quality, but not the sort of sustained impact that would justify effectively losing £60 million. The Ozil and Sanchez situations also throw up a wider question that Wenger touched upon in a passage of his speech to Arsenal’s annual general meeting. He said that Arsenal were now not up against “individuals” but entire “states” and it was widely assumed that Manchester City were among his reference points.
Especially intriguing, though, was Wenger’s admission that Arsenal must “find a way to compete with these clubs”. He mitigated that with a message about sticking to certain traditional principles – “be together, give a chance to young players, improve the quality of what we do with our young players” – but then acknowledged that it was “not enough”. He added: “We need more and better and to find a way to compete with the better clubs.”
Today will provide another indication of whether Arsenal really can consistently do that within the constraints of their self-sustaining model.
City already lead them by nine points and should that gap grow – and Arsenal find themselves losing Ozil and Sanchez next year – a much more radical rethink might be needed.
Winning formula: Arsenal are statistically more successful – just about – when Mesut Ozil plays