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The Long Goodbye Between Mesut Özil and Arsenal

 

Rob Bateman (@Orbinho) delves into Mesut Özil’s most productive season and assesses just how good the German is in the pantheon of Premier League playmakers.

By: Rob Bateman

What happened to Mesut Özil in 2015-16? The German racked up 16 assists in 18 games by the halfway point of the season and was on course to break the Premier League record of 20, set by Thierry Henry in 2002-03. Unfortunately for him, he finished the campaign with just three more assists in 17 appearances and fell one short of the record.

He actually finished the season having created 146 chances, the most by any player in Premier League history where the data has been recorded by Opta, dating back to 1996, so was it a case of being let down by his teammates?

The first reason that seemed to impact his creativity was that Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez both got injured at the same time. The last game those two both played was against Norwich at the end of November. At that point, Özil had 11 assists in 13 games. Opponents suddenly had just one creative player to deal with and not three. Cazorla didn’t play again that season, while Alexis didn’t start a Premier League game again until February.

But the team’s attacking potential didn’t really seem to be affected overall. They scored just one goal fewer in the second half of the campaign, while their conversion rate was much the same. The difference was that Özil created only about one-fifth of the team’s goals that he had been creating.

Arsenal 2015-16 First 19 Games vs. Last 19 Games:

Arsenal 2015-16First 19 gamesLast 19 games
Total Shots296275
Shot Conversion Rate11.2%11.6%
Goals Scored3332
% assisted by Özil48.5%9.4%

Özil saw his ability to create chances diminished. In the first half of the season, he was creating a chance from open play every 27 minutes. In the second half, it dropped to one every 43 minutes. And the proportion of those chances that were headers increased from 28% to 45% as opponents closed down passing options for the German more successfully.

But perhaps what is most revealing is Özil’s figures for Expected Assists (xA). Prior to January, the German got 16 assists but would normally have expected to see those passes result in only five to six goals. In other words, he just fell into a purple patch where the chances he created were scored at a simply unsustainable rate. After New Year, his xA was around four assists and he only set up three goals, so although he didn’t perform as well in the second half of the season, the chances he created were still scored at roughly the expected rate. Over performance in a short period of time is commonplace and the first half of 2015-16 was clearly just one of those exceptional purple patches.

Click to enlarge

A lot of people blame Olivier Giroud for failing to take the chances created for him. The France international scored 10 goals in the first half of the season, netting with 20% of his shots, while only converting 11.5% in the second half. But Giroud still managed six goals between January and May and his Expected Goals (xG) of 5.4 means he scored about on par, while he was roughly three better than his 6.95xG from August to December. Özil assisted Giroud for seven goals in total, five of those in the first half of the campaign.

Four of the seven goals Giroud scored which were assisted by Özil were shots, three were headers. Özil didn’t create a single shot other than headers for Giroud from the start of January until the 17th April – a run of 13 games. In the first half of the season, 42% of the chances the German created were not headers and in the second half, that figure dropped to 29%.

And Giroud ended up as more of a creative force as Özil’s creativity was stifled, setting up twice as many chances in the second half of the campaign and registering five assists himself after New Year compared to just one in the opening half of the season.

Özil will leave a controversial legacy in place at the club. Part of four FA Cup-winning squads, and occasionally setting creative standards befitting a player of his calibre, he also garnered a reputation for not being able to cut it against the very best or the most challenging opponents. He played just one away game against Newcastle in his whole Arsenal career as he was often excused long trips north and against the Big Six, his last away game outside London came in November 2017. Overall against Man City, Liverpool and Man Utd he was selected for just seven of the last 18 away games prior to this season. Overall against the Big Six, he scored six goals and assisted nine in 47 Premier League games, with those figures two apiece in 20 away games.

His advocates would argue he’s the greatest playmaker the club has seen, but the data doesn’t really bear that out. Özil sits fourth on the all-time Premier League assist charts for the club.

And he’s fourth when you look at Minutes per assist.

Even when you ignore the time spent languishing on the bench or on the sidelines in the post-Wenger era, his rate of one assist every 241 minutes under the Frenchman still places Özil just behind the top three (minimum 20 assists).

And when you look at the all-time Premier League rankings, he sits in twelfth position overall.

Premier League All-Time Mins/Assist:

RankPlayerAssistsMinutes/Assist
1Kevin De Bruyne76174
2José Antonio Reyes21214
3Leroy Sané28217
4Nani43226
5Dennis Bergkamp94236
6Cesc Fàbregas111238
7Eric Cantona56246
8David Silva93258
9Eyal Berkovic41265
10Vladimir Smicer24269
11David Beckham80270
12Mesut Özil54283

He probably had a period of two years, playing alongside Alexis Sanchez where he showed the kind of talent Arsenal fans hoped he’d bring, but 2015-16 was really a missed opportunity as the Gunners finished second to Leicester City, when they really should have mounted a better challenge.

The Arsenal fanbase has been hugely divided over the German. What’s clear is that he was a hugely talented player who showed what a fantastic creator he could be, without perhaps doing it often enough, nor doing what truly great players have done at times, which is to seemingly win games on their own, pulling their teammates along for the ride. Özil looked fantastic when surrounded by other great players for Germany and Real Madrid, but rarely had the force of personality to single-handedly drag his team to victory. Arsenal fans have been spoiled by the likes of Ian Wright, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas doing just that over the years and the fact those skills weren’t on display as often as they’d want in the Premier League from Özil will be the overarching memory of this hugely talented player.


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