It has become impossible to watch an Arsenal game this season without hearing of Mesut Ozil’s assist record. It’s now 13 in the 2015-16 Premier League season alone, a staggering figure that matches the best-ever assist haul of Dennis Bergkamp for an entire league campaign.
Amazingly, it’s six more than any other Premier League player this season, and four more than anyone else in Europe’s major five leagues. It’s better than anyone could have imagined when Arsenal broke their club record transfer fee — three times over — to sign him in summer 2013. Yet in a way, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
If you remember times when he supposedly struggled in English football — toward the end of his first season following a very good start, and for longer periods during his second season — staunch Ozil supporters told us he was the type of player whose contribution wasn’t entirely represented through statistics. It was his off-the-ball movement (arguably his defining feature at Real Madrid), his ability to play the pass before the assist and his first touch that truly marked him out as an outstanding footballer.
To a certain extent, this is true, but you can’t really have it both ways. You can’t ignore the stats when it suits you and then focus on them when it suits you. Assists or no assists, Ozil remains wonderful.
The crucial thing about Ozil is that he’s a proper No. 10. He plays centrally between midfield and attack, and he doesn’t really look comfortable in other roles. He occasionally has been pushed wider for tactical reasons, but it never suits him — more than almost any other top-level player in Europe, he needs to be located centrally.
Ozil’s not a No. 10 who can play up front, too, like Wayne Rooney. He’s not a No. 10 who can drift in from wide areas and perform equally well, like David Silva. He’s not a No. 10 who contributes significantly in the defensive phase, like Oscar. And he’s not even a No. 10 who could theoretically play deeper in midfield and truly dictate the tempo of the game, like Toni Kroos. He’s an old-school No. 10, thriving in a country that has traditionally not favoured No. 10s.
A No. 10 isn’t just a deep-lying forward or a second striker; he’s a side’s creative fulcrum, the man teammates look to supply to make things happen. It comes with a lot of pressure, and there are basically two entirely different ways of interpreting that responsibility.
The first type of No. 10 uses this creative license to shine individually. Whether through continual mazy dribbles or a keen eye to improve his individual goal-scoring return, there’s an arrogance and an egotism about him. To a certain extent, they exist outside the true structure of a team, just doing their own thing.
He is surely a blessing to our generation.
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