Arsenal playmaker Mesut Özil has earned widespread acclaim since his mid-January return from a knee injury. This praise marks a change for the club's record signing, who had been a target of criticism for much of his first season and a half in London.
In my view, these negative opinions stemmed from a failure to understand Özil's skill, his subtle contributions, and his mindset. (See "Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not" for research and analysis of Özil's psychological advantage.) The spurious nature of the previous criticism notwithstanding, it's clear that Özil has recently improved upon his already world-class standards.
The evidence appears in Özil's physical presence, his statistical production, and his relationships with teammates. Those signs bode well for the team's prospects for the rest of the 2014-15 campaign and for seasons to come.
A remade physique
Three months on the sidelines gave Özil the time to bulk up for the rigors of the Premier League. After his reappearance in January, many remarked on the transformation.
Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger confirmed our perceptions when he told the club Website that "Every day he is in the gym, and he can work on it [getting stronger], and as well you don't have the fatigue of the games. And it's better when you look in the mirror!"
Opponents can't be enjoying what they are seeing. The combination of vision, intelligence, and existing physical gifts with newfound strength makes Özil a formidable midfield presence. Just ask the Aston Villa defenders and midfielders who tried to shove Özil off the ball during Arsenal's 5-0 victory on February 1, Özil's first Premier League start since October 5.
This video compilation is full of physical challenges won by Özil. The most impressive for me happened in the second half, when Arsenal already led comfortably. (It starts at the 7:30 mark of the video.)
Özil takes a pass from Aaron Ramsey near the end line and quickly comes under pressure from Villa's Fabian Delph. Delph slides in and knocks Özil off his feet. Özil regains his footing, shuffles the ball toward the corner flag, and readies himself to be shoved by Delph. Delph shoves him once. Özil moves the ball to his other foot; otherwise, he hardly moves. Delph shoves him again. Özil traps the ball. It takes the intervention of another Villa player, Carles Gil, to clip the ball out of bounds.
Granted, Özil does have a size advantage on Delph, but he doesn't on Villa defender Alan Hutton, whose challenges he also warded off consistently. These were indications of Özil's enhanced strength and determination, to relish contact in a match whose outcome did not hinge on application after Theo Walcott's 63rd-minute goal put Arsenal 3-0 up.
Özil's assertiveness is also appearing in his statistical production. In the six games since his return, admittedly a small sample size that includes matches against two Championship sides and two teams in the bottom half of the Premier League, Arsenal's Number 11 has been more involved in front of goal. He has three goals in 458 minutes of playing time, compared with six in 2,541 minutes of Premier League and FA Cup action in 2013-14. That's 0.59 goals per 90 minutes in 2015, versus 0.213 goals per 90 minutes in the previous competitions. (Stats from OptaSports via whoscored.com.)
These goals have come from an increased rate of shots (1.77 per 90 vs. 1.34 per 90) and shots on goal (1.38 per 90 vs. 0.82 per 90). Özil has been efficient with his shots as well, scoring with three of his nine shots. That ratio ranks well above those produced by the Premier League's top goalscorers this season. Last season, he scored six goals on 35 shots in domestic competitions.
Although his production of assists per 90 minutes has actually fallen in 2015 relative to the 2013-14 season, he is setting up teammates much more frequently. He has delivered an eye-catching 3.34 key passes per 90 minutes since his return, including eight in his star turn against Middlesbrough; in the Premier League last season, that figure was 2.82. (Last stat from Optasports via Squawka.com.)
Perhaps these figures will trend toward those of the previous competitions as Özil and Arsenal face more accomplished opposition. But even if, statistically speaking, Özil's production reverts to the mean, the overall results for Arsenal seem bound to improve.
Chemistry and relationships
That's because Özil's contributions are enhanced by the involvement of his teammates. Unlike last season, when opponents could limit the team's attacking potential by focusing on Özil, the 2014-15 version of Arsenal boasts many weapons.
First, as has been widely observed, the team has more speed. Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck, and Alexis Sanchez can frighten defenses with their speed and receive those passes on the run that Özil has long been adept at delivering. His relationship with Alexis appears especially promising--watch this video for the exchanges between the two in Sunday's FA Cup tie with Middlesbrough for a hint of the potential.
Another benefit Alexis provides Özil is the deflection of the spotlight. Unlike last season, when Özil's record transfer fee created the expectation that he would be an immediate, eye-catching star, this season has brought Alexis's spirit and ability to the fore. This has freed Özil to maximize his introverted genius. (I think this theory was first offered by Arseblog and Gunnerblog on an Arsecast Extra, but I can't find the precise citation.)
From a tactical perspective, Özil's interaction with an outstanding Santi Cazorla has allayed much of the concern that the two could not thrive in the same midfield. What we saw against Middlesbrough, in fact, was an attractive symbiosis. As Adrian Clarke noted in his Breakdown segment on Arsenal Player, the two formed the contest's most frequent passing combination. Cazorla had 129 touches while Özil had 114, so there was plenty of the ball to go around.
There was also plenty of space. Cazorla took up a deeper position, by and large, and Özil focused his activity on the final third, with a slight bias to the left wing. (See the player heatmaps on WhoScored.com for a visual representation of the pair's complementary positioning.)
With Alexis, Welbeck, and Oliver Giroud in the forward line, the offensive unit was fast, strong, skillful, and determined. Not every match will provide a platform for such a setup, but it's hard to envisage an encounter in which Arsenal's performance will suffer from the involvement of the freshly masterful Mesut Özil.