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December 2020
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Transforming Ozil

By Richard Hoover

When Arsenal signed Mesut Ozil in the autumn of 2013, the thinking was that one of the best no. 10s in world football was on his way to London. The move was meant to revitalise the Gunners’ offense and allow the team to begin playing through the talented German midfielder, who at the time was only 24 years old (though on the cusp of 25).

It didn’t exactly go well in the early going, as we all remember. Fast-forward a year from the signing and folks were trying desperately to decipher what exactly was keeping Ozil so far below his capabilities. Some blamed Arsene Wenger for playing the German too much on the wing, though watching the matches provided clarity beyond a positional issue. Ozil was simply not engaged during his first year or so with the club. I’ve even theorised that he was simply more focused on the World Cup (which, of course, he helped Germany win), though the idea of the world’s biggest sporting event distracting a player of Ozil’s calibre seems odd.

If Ozil himself is to be believed, it may just have come down to practice habits. One would assume a player worth £42.5 million might know how best to practice to maximise his own talents from the start, but I suppose that’s neither here nor there now that he’s getting results. Ozil claims that new shooting drills have helped him, not only with finding the back of the net efficiently when he has the opportunity to do so, but with his own confidence. The midfielder says he plans on scoring more this season, though what we’re all more excited to see is the return of his majestic creativity.

And to anyone watching Arsenal this season, that return has been incredibly evident. It’s not as if Ozil hasn’t shown flashes of his abilities during his time in London, but we’re in the midst of the first stretch during which he’s consistently lived up to his reputation. The player we’re witnessing this season is the one Wenger and Co. committed over £40 million to sign, if not a slightly improved version. With that return to form, Ozil has become the best creative presence in the Premier League. The statistics back him up rather emphatically.

The simple way to put it would be that Mesut Ozil already has a rather ridiculous lead in the assist category among EPL players. In fact, he’s pretty much putting his counterparts known for their creative abilities to shame thus far. Ozil has 10 assists through 11 matches—that’s double the next highest total in the Premier League. His total is also greater than those of Juan Mata, Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard, and Philippe Coutinho combined. That sure sounds better than the “Mesut Ozil is underachieving” headlines we’ve been enduring for the better part of two years now.

But really, that’s just a fun talking point. Ozil’s lead over those players in the assist category is as much about their performances as his. It would be somewhat simplistic to argue that the German has asserted himself as the league’s best creator purely because of the assist numbers after 12 weeks of matches. In fact, if you look at assisting work from a slightly different perspective, it can be argued that Ozil hasn’t even been the most efficient player at setting up goals.

Looking at assists earned during time on the field, as opposed to per appearance, it becomes apparent that four players actually boast better assist-per-90 minute ratios than Ozil. Those players are Gerard Deulofeu, David Silva, Gaston Ramirez, and Nikica Jelavic. Ramirez and Jelavic really don’t belong on the list because their numbers are skewed by very low minutes. However, Deulofeu and Silva both have credible arguments as the more efficient players when it comes to generating assists. Both have played over 400 minutes and are averaging slightly better than Ozil’s 0.96 assists-per-90 minutes.

What those numbers tell us is that going strictly by efficiency in creating assists, four players (and really just those two) have Ozil beat. But this, too, is an incomplete assessment when judging the league’s most creative player. Efficiency means little without opportunity, so it’s still highly relevant that Ozil has seen far more of the field than either Deulofeu or Silva. Additionally, one has to factor in elements of creativity that go beyond the pure assist numbers.

And when you look at the advanced passing statistics in EPL play this year, it becomes apparent that no one has been as effective at distribution and creativity as Ozil. And if anyone’s close, it’s fellow Gunner Santi Cazorla. Here are the numbers of note:

Ozil is averaging 4.9 key passes per game, a full pass ahead of Dimitri Payet, whose 3.9 is second best. One could easily argue this is every bit as important a statistic as assists in judging a player’s creative functionality, and Ozil leads the category just as clearly as he leads in assists.

Ozil’s 60.4 passes per game ranks 10th in the Premier League, which speaks to his involvement and efficiency. On one hand, being in the top-10 indicates his constant activity for Arsenal this season; on the other, not being at the very top of this list shows his restraint in creating real chances rather than simply passing along.

Ozil’s 87.8% pass completion ranks 25th, but it’s worth noting that only eight of the players ahead of him are even averaging pass attempts within 10 of Ozil’s. And among the players involved enough to attempt 60 or more passes per game, only three rank above Ozil in completion percentage: Cazorla, Fernandinho, and Daley Blind.

Put it all together and there’s simply no conclusion to come to other than that Ozil has been the most effective creative midfielder in the league this season. What our eyes are telling us during the matches is no mirage or illusion: Ozil is finally the player we paid for, and it’s had a great deal to do with the success thus far.

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