Take a quick glance at Mesut Ozil’s stats this season, and it’s easy to think there is reason for concern. In eight games for Arsenal, the virtuoso playmaker has yet to register a single assist. And this from a man who had 16 in the league by New Year’s Day in 2015. Something must be wrong, right?
If anything, Ozil’s lack of assists can almost be considered a good thing for Arsenal. It shows they’re not nearly as reliant on the German midfielder when it comes to creating chances this season. But his importance to the team hasn’t changed.
In the seven games Ozil has started, Arsenal have scored 16 goals and racked up six wins and a draw. Ozil himself netted two of those goals, but wasn’t directly involved in the other 14 — remarkable considering he either scored or assisted 38 percent of the Gunners’ league goals last season (25 of 65) and finished with 19 assists, one shy of the Premier League record.
So what has changed? For one, Arsenal’s playing style. The new-look attack with Alexis Sanchez up front relies on speed and movement to a much greater extent than when Olivier Giroud plays there, which has allowed Ozil to take on a slightly different role.
Arsenal’s attacking play is now much more direct and dynamic, with Sanchez, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi all able to run at defenders and play off each other at pace. It means Ozil hasn’t been left with the responsibility to pick apart packed defences with that pinpoint ball over to the top to Giroud, or a perfectly weighted pass to an onrushing midfielder.
Instead, Arsenal now rely on a multi-headed threat, with eight different players having scored at least two goals this season. And four players — Sanchez, Walcott, Iwobi and Cazorla — have at least two assists each.
But it would be foolish to think Ozil doesn’t remain at the heart of it all. The German’s quick passing (90 percent accuracy) still helps dictate games and he has played a key part in plenty of goals. It’s just that now his key passes often help start the build-up that leads to a goal rather than providing the final ball itself.
Arsenal’s recent results speak for themselves. In the two league games Ozil didn’t start as he was regaining full fitness after Euro 2016, Arsenal were beaten 4-3 by Liverpool and drew 0-0 at Leicester. Since then they have five straight league wins.
The best evidence of Ozil’s importance may be in the performances of Sanchez. In those first two games, he looked lost as the lone striker as he struggled to get any service from his teammates. But since Ozil’s return to the starting XI at Watford, Sanchez has five goals and four assists and has looked a completely different player.
The diminutive Chilean feeds off the quick movement that Ozil’s passing helps create, and their connection is better than ever in their third season together. It’s no coincidence that both of Ozil’s goals were assisted by Sanchez, and the German should have put away at least one of the chances his teammate created for him against Basel in the Champions League as well.
However, it seems Ozil does still need a Giroud-like target against some opponents. Burnley frustrated Arsenal on Sunday by adopting the most defensive-minded tactics the team have faced yet this season, and the Gunners couldn’t break them down until their fortunate injury-time winner from Laurent Koscielny.
That was perhaps Ozil’s least convincing performance of the campaign so far, and he seemed lost for ideas at times without a clear target to pick out in the box. When Giroud returns from a toe injury after the international break, Arsenal can revert to that “Plan B” when needed — as it might be against teams that put 10 men behind the ball.
For now, though, it seems unlikely that Ozil will come close to breaking the Premier League assist record this season. And for Arsenal, that’s may not be a bad thing.