Combine that reality with the hosts’ crisper passing and effective defending, and you get a rather unpleasant display for Arsenal fans. A pleasing result, no doubt, but not with the aesthetic quality we would like to see.
Pause from the monocause
As ever in this era of reductive outrage, many observers laid the responsibility at the feet of either Özil or Aaron Ramsey. The attacking midfielders carried the creative potential in this particular starting XI; the other members of the front six tended to the direct (Alexis, Theo Walcott) or the risk managers (Francis Coquelin, Mohammed Elneny).
It’s true that neither Özil nor Ramsey created a chance for a teammate. Between them, they completed only one pass in the opposition penalty area. And neither took a shot.
So at one level you can see why Arsenal’s two talents took criticism for the pedestrian display overall.
But those complaints, true to our age, oversimplify complex developments.
Kelly Wood’s defense of Ramsey, “Aaron Ramsey! He is Great,” hammers the Ramsey critics effectively, so I won’t restate her points here. What I will do instead is try to understand the dynamics that brought on this performance, particularly from Özil.
So, what’s Özil’s scenario?
First, the statistics don’t reveal anything out of the ordinary. Özil completed 58 passes against Manchester United, just one fewer than his season average. His passing accuracy of 86 percent was only one percentage point lower than his norm so far this year.
The difference was where Özil did this work. Instead of combining with Alexis and Walcott on the edge or in Manchester United’s penalty area, the German playmaker operated much closer to midfield. The heat maps on whoscored.com show Özil frequenting the middle third. That was a change of his sphere of influence, given that he’s one of the Premier League’s most prolific final-third passers.
Not only did this shift of activity take Özil away from where he’s most dangerous, it jammed him into an area where others were operating. In particular, Alexis dropped deep from his center forward position to receive the ball—note the overlap with Özil on the heat map.
Rather than creating triangles to facilitate quick passing, the Gunners’ close proximity to each other in midfield allowed Manchester United’s midfielders to clog the spaces.
There was another team on the pitch
That was central to Jose Mourinho’s brutal design.
The Manchester United manager set out to deny Özil opportunities on the ball. The German genius often found himself surrounded by three opposition players—center backs Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones pushing up and midfielder Michael Carrick shielding passes into him. When he ventured to the left, right back Antonio Valencia and a central midfielder usually had him cornered.
Loosening these defensive shackles proved difficult. It required guile and skill from Özil's midfield teammates or a dangerous distraction elsewhere.
For all their positive qualities and contributions, Coquelin and Elneny could not provide the craft to free Özil. The central pair focused on breaking up the hosts’ attacks and making the simple pass out. These two responsibilities were difficult enough, what with the harassment they received from Ander Herrera.
To find the well-marshalled Özil, they needed more daring.
Creative responsibility wasn’t their brief, though, as manager Arsène Wenger admitted afterward. “I knew it would be a bit more of a physical battle, so I chose players who have experience and fight,” he told Arsenal.com.
Method to the midfield
There’s a logic to this approach. Many factors weighed against Arsenal in this match, even if this wasn’t the most fearsome Manchester United lineup of all time.
Early kickoff. Return from the international break. The Mourinho hoodoo. A 10-year league victory drought at Old Trafford. Injuries to dynamic players like Hector Bellerin and Santi Cazorla.
In that context, you can understand a more circumspect approach from Arsenal. Wenger was right that midfield robustness was important; it’s just that his charges didn’t cope superbly with the aggressiveness of Manchester United in that area of the pitch.
They handled it well enough to get a draw. If the players’ post-game comments are a true indication, they’ll be honest in their assessment of the performance and optimistic that better outings lie ahead.