13 September 2013

Almöst nöthing aböut Özil here—just Wilshere and his role...

Well, maybe a reference or two, but it'll be quick as we turn to the talisman, Jack Wilshere. Speaking ahead of Saturday's match against Sunderland, Arsène spoke of Jack Wilshere and the potential for "conflict" between he and Özil as two offensive-minded midfielders:
In midfield Jack Wilshere is more comfortable in deeper positions, and Özil more in a higher position. That’s why I don’t think they conflict...looking at Jack over the years now, he likes to come deep to take the ball and make a difference, and then give and go again.
As this preference of Jack's has begun to emerge, it's exciting to see him define a role for himself. As this role has took hold over the last season, Wilshere was involved in more Premier League goals than anyone else last year (according to Opta) even if it wasn't in the direct form of an assist or tackle. Lending credence to Arsène's assessment,  Wilshere has more-often been involved through the tackle that disrupts an attack and initiates our counter-attack or through the pass to the player who notches the assist—in other words, he "likes to come deep to take the ball and make a difference."

As wonderful as we've made Wilshere out to be, he's suffered a bit from being a jack-of-all-trades, and his versatility seems to have hampered his development. The at-hand comparison would be Aaron Ramsey, who was asked to play all over the pitch, out of position, and in roles that didn't suit his skills or temperament. Having settled into a more-defensive role, one that relieved the pressure of replacing Fàbregas as a creative midfielder. Now that Ramsey has committed to his role, we've seen him flourish to the point that he earned Arsenal's Player of the Month for a second time, once back in May and again in August, and he's already earned two MotM awards from whoscored.com (both against Fener).

With the arrival of Özil, Wilshere's apparent tendency to drop down deeper should be further encouraged, and his link-up with Özil could become a fulcrum that launches some breath-taking attacks. I can picture it: Wilshere makes a tackle in the middle-third that pokes the ball forward to Özil who sends a ball through defenders for Walcott to run onto at the edge of the box, and he slots it home, chips the keeper, or puts it back across the mouth for Giroud to finish.

As much as we've salivated over what Özil might make possible, seeing Wilshere define and commit to a role could see him find the form that we've only seen flashes of, bouncing back from injury in much the same way that Ramsey has. Between the two of them, Özil, and the stable of other midfielders we have, we could conceivably field six or seven midfielders and run opponents ragged, in imitation of the Spanish national team in recent years. More likely, though, we'll see the likes of Rosický and Arteta settle into supporting roles in coming years, if not this one. Even Flamini's tenure could be short-lived (he's already talked of a potential return to Marseille). With Ramsey and Wilshere at the base, Özil in the center, and Cazorla and Walcott running the flanks, we'd have a potent midfield indeed, one whose attacking trio was good for 35 league goals and 40 assists  (including Özil's La Liga stats). With Cazorla and Walcott each looking to build on their fine seasons, Ramsey carrying momentum into this one, and Wilshere forging his fitness and his role, this could be quite the season.

Not bad. After a few weeks of overdosing on Özil, it's well-worth remembering that we already have some pretty fine players waiting to greet him.  I managed to keep the Özil references to a minimum, didn't I? Sure, his name appears a dozen times, but they're quick asides, aren't they? This is a team, after all, and we'll only be as good as the weakest link. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, Saturday could give us insights into whether this squad will rise above that to become something greater than the sum of its parts.

12 September 2013

The lads take to Colney as Sunderland awaits...

It's been a long, dull couple of weeks that not even a 2-0 victory for the U.S. over Mexico could do much about. Finally, we can get back to some footballing action that brings us together as the squad prepares to face Sunderland on Saturday. At the risk of becoming
some kind of Özil-fanböy (one, I'm already too far gone, and two, let that be the last time I drop an umlaut where it doesn't belong. Seems to be a fad of some kind for some reason or other), our newest player showed us a taste of his artistry during Germany's qualifiers, notching an assist against Austria and scoring against the Faroe Islands while creating any number of chances for teammates that went just wide, were cleared off the line, or were scuffed. With Rosický officially scratched from Saturday's match, we can hope that Özil can slot in without too much trouble. It would be nice to have Podolski available to add just a touch more familiarity, but them's the breaks.

On a brighter note, it's not like Özil joins a foundering squad and faces pressure to single-handedly resurrect it. Giroud has started brightly, for one, and only looks set to improve as he and Özil get to know each other. Even more exciting is the potential threat posed by the two-pronged attack of Özil and Cazorla; the former seems to prefer prowling down the right (even if this sees him sending balls in from the outside of his preferred left) while the latter likes to slice into the center. These attacks, along with the service already on offer from Ramsey and others, could see us pouncing on Sunderland (who have conceded five goals in their last two matches) early and often, for it's not merely the skill that the new signing contributes; it's surely a jolt of confidence to see a teammate of this caliber on the pitch, to know what he's capable of, and to draw inspiration from that. The attacking options in the midfield include a number of putative #10's on (Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla, Rosický, and Özil having all played there at various times), which would allow us to further continue a fluid, rotating midfield of the sort that flummoxed Fulham so thoroughly.

You can see a few shots of the squad warming up at Arsenal.com; everyone seems happy and eager to run and stretch and do whatever else they do when cameras are pointed at them. It all looks like a great deal of fun, I must say. With Rosický out and Wilshere still finding his way to full fitness, I imagine we'll see Ramsey and Flamini behind Cazorla, Özil, and Walcott on Sunday, which sounds like even more fun than the kick-around. There's still a fair amount of thumb-twiddling to be done, which means that attention turns to other affairs, such as Arsène's contract. Speaking to the press today, he said this:
We are not in a hurry. We are in September, my contract finishes in June. There is a long way to go. There is no need to [talk].
Of course, how the season turns out will be a factor. The signing of Özil both increases the prospect of winning some silverware and ratchets up the pressure around doing so. His arrival doesn't guarantee silverware, of course, but should we fail to hoist a trophy of some sort, this could just close the door on the Prof's contract-talks. Let's set that unpleasant thought aside and enjoy the promise of a new season and a strong start that looks set to get even better. There's a lot of football to be played, and it will be great to see this group back on the pitch come Saturday. I just wonder whom Özil will set up first...

11 September 2013

With Rosický injured, will Özil supplant him earlier than planned?

Tomáš Rosický was subbed off during the Czech Republic's match against Italy in the 38th minute, suffering a thigh strain. Details are still forthcoming, but it's unlikely that this was merely a preventative or cautionary move as the Czech sat in 4th place in its Group,
behind Italy, Bulgaria, and Denmark and needed to take at point, if not all three, to keep its hopes of World Cup qualification alive. Had Rosický stayed on the pitch for a full 90', the Czechs might have fared a bit better than losing 2-1.While he seems to be the only Gunner to have been laid low last night, it's the kind of knock that a 32-year old with a history of injuries can ill-afford, especially with a shiny, new, £42.5m attacking midfielder looking to find his place on the pitch.

I'm as excited as anyone to see Özil do for us what he's done for Germany (such as scoring and assisting, as he did on Tuesday) and for Real Madrid, but I also have some mixed emotions, as Rosický has long been one of my sentimental favorites. Maybe it's my own torn ACL talking, but I sympathize with guys who suffer injuries that sap their strength and their skill. I've talked of my respect for Rosický before, here and here, for those curious to read. In short, instead of looking back on and celebrating a glorious career, all of us—perhaps even the man himself—feel a tint of regret as we ponder what might have been. This is, however, a bit harsh as Rosický has had more than a few scintillating moments and is still more than capable of turning a game on its head. Witness, as just the most recent example, his nifty pass to Walcott that led to the assist on Giroud's goal against Tottenham last weekend. His intelligence on the pitch shows him immediately running to the far post. Even more vital from my point of view is his celebration after Giroud scored. While less epic than his celebration after scoring himself against Tottenham in February, it's clear that he's a true Gunner at heart. Instead of coming over to celebrate with Giroud, Rosický curled around in front of the Spurs fans to pump his fist in their direction a few times (a fan posted a cell-phone video of it, but I can't seem to find it). I'll repost if I can.

While Rosický may suffer a bit in comparison to Özil when it comes to passing (and he's certainly no slouch there), one area where he may outstrip our new addition is in pressing and disrupting opponents' counters. His work-rate in this area is a sight to behold, and just as important as his creativity is his willingness to go for a tackle or interception to break up an attack before it can develop. Harassing opponents' midfielders and defenders has been a calling-card of his, one that is frequently outshone by his skill and flair on the ball. As with the pass to Walcott mentioned above, his contributions go beyond the scoresheet or the stats, and I don't think there are many players who can match him for heart, not to mention skill. Between his contract situation and Özil's arrival, I worry that he may be further marginalized. I want him to end his career at Arsenal, and I won't even hedge that with a "if the price is right". If we can carry Squillaci, Chamakh, and others year after year after year, we can certainly afford to treat Rosický with the respect he deserves. By all accounts, he is a true professional and exudes nothing but class on and off the pitch.

With Özil sure to compete with him for playing time, Rosický may have to settle for a diminished role. Then again, as we look to compete across four competitions (Prem, league cup, FA Cup, Champions League), the two of them could forge a powerful rotation and make mincemeat of opposing defenses. At the risk of looking too far beyond the season that still lies ahead, I wholeheartedly hope he is re-signed (big difference-maker, that hyphen there). Further, I hope we see him at Arsenal for years to come, as a player and as a coach. I'm willing to bet that, as well as the little Maestro can orchestrate on the pitch, he'll be equally as good at it from the sideline. That, however, is a sight I'm willing to wait a few more years to see as Rosický has more than a season or two left in those legs.

10 September 2013

Fàbregas: Özil will "kill" Prem defenses

Slow, slow day ahead of today's round of World Cup qualifiers. Here in the U.S. we have a visit from Mexico, fresh off their stunning home-loss to Honduras, and we'll be without Michael Bradley (injury) and Jozy Altidore (suspension), so it could be a barn-burner—
Mexico needs to win to stay alive, we're first in the group but are missing key players, and the rivalry itself is intense enough when there's little to nothing at stake. However, that's little more than window-dressing at the moment. All I'm really hoping is that our lads come through without any injuries. There are quite a few of them who will play (click  here to see the full list at Arsenal.com), and as long as everyone emerges hale and hearty, I'm happy. This break in the action has given us plenty of time to ponder our fortunes, which have taken a dramatic turn for the better, of course, and the signing of Özil. A lot has already been said about it, and Cesc Fàbregas put in his two cents the other day:
He is going to enjoy the Premier League an awful lot. It is a league with more space [than La Liga] and Özil is a player that, given time and space, he will kill you. As we have already seen from his time at Real Madrid, his final ball is brilliant.
Having played against Özil over the last two seasons and for Arsenal for the preceding eight, of course, Fàbregas is well-qualified to attest to Özil's abilities and how they'll translate to playing in the Prem. The prospect of him slicing defenses open, eviscerating them with that killer final ball, should make opposing defenses tremble. We've already gone for ten goals in five matches without his service, and, after a bedding-in period, we should start to see some glorious football. Just as exciting as the final product will be the method behind it; Özil may have been on of Florentino Perez's famous (or infamous) "galácticos", but he plays Arsenal's style of football. He highlights the difference between merely purchasing players and managing them and because his skills mesh so well with Arsenal's style, it's no stretch of the imagination to suggest that a manager like Arsène might actually unlock a player whose creativity might have been constricted somewhat while playing under Mourinho. More directly, playing for Arsène means that Özil will be playing in a system tailored to his skills and mindset, not to mention his stated desire for "transparency, trust, and respect"—qualities that Mourinho might have to look up in a dictionary.

As good as Özil's passing might be, he's not passing to Ronaldo anymore. How well will Giroud fare? For a quick frame of reference, my nine-year old son's only goal this season has come because a cross bounced off him and in. If that's all Giroud manages, this still might be good for a dozen goals in and of itself. A more likely scenario sees Giroud and Özil forging a more-lethal partnership as Giroud learns to anticipate Özil's through-balls and crosses—and it's not only Giroud who stands to benefit; surely, Walcott, Cazorla, and Podolski will see delicious passses to latch onto and put on frame. While the finishing will still be up to them, of course, the delivery from Özil will faciliate that finishing a great deal

For a quick comparison of how Özil compares to other passers in the Prem, look to whoscored's graphic on Frank Lampard, which identifies Leighton Baines as the player with the most key passes since 2009 with 344. In that time (again, according to whoscored.com), he's therefore averaged 2.35 key passes per game. By comparison, Özil has averaged 3.025 key passes per game, a rather-large contrast, made all the more stark when we see that Özil's total would be 417 key passes since 2009—67 more than Baines and 128 more than Silva's second-place total of 289. Özil will still have to adjust to some of the more rough-and-tumble aspects of Prem League play, but if he can replicate his success at Arsenal—and all of the signs suggest he will—Fàbregas's assessment may actually underestimate Özil's impact on opposition defenses.

Sunderland, whom Arsenal faces this coming Saturday, have already conceded seven goals in four matches, including, most recently, three against newly-promoted Crystal Palace. There could be a similar orgy of goals for the Gunners should Özil feature on Saturday, and this would only be the beginning.

09 September 2013

Özil banner competition: I may have missed the cut, but...

...dammit, I worked and I slaved over this and I'll be doggone if I'm gonna let a silly thing like deadlines or the fact that a winner was announced before I even submitted this stop me, so here it is. I'm rather proud of it, even if I'm not the best photoshopper out there. Then again, I've learned all I know (precious little, I'll admit) all by my pretty little self.

Among other issues, I like the idea that Özil might carry on a tradition of technically gifted passers in the mold of Brady, Pirès, or Fàbregas. If nothing else, during what is a slow news week thanks to the interlull, I hope it provides a little bit of eye-candy for you. We seem to have made it through the previous week without any players picking up silly knocks as in past interlulls, so let's hope that the upcoming week gives our lads some time to get to know each other after their matches on Tuesday.

In news as close to Arsenal-related as I can get, Mexico's shock-loss to Honduras leaves them teetering on elimination from the World Cup, which makes their match against the U.S, who lost to Costa Rica but are still in second place in the group, all the more vital. However, Jozy Altidore, who joined Sunderland this summer after scoring 31 goals across all competitions for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar last year, picked up a second yellow during the Costa Rica match and won't face Mexico on Tuesday, and this presumably means he'll be back in plenty of time to prepare for Saturday's match. So it goes.