Arsenal Tactics – Mesut Ozil And The Art Of Off-The-Ball Runs

Mesut Ozil is a fantastic player. He is considered by many to be the best playmaker in the world. His quality is obvious when one sees the passes he makes, the chances he creates, and the goals he scores. His skills on the ball undoubtedly catch the eyes of onlookers and will improve Arsenal immensely. However, one of Ozil’s greatest assets is how he affects the game off the ball. Here’s a look at this uncanny ability of his, and how this affects the shape of Arsenal’s attack.

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil - The Master of Off-The-Ball Movement

Off-The-Ball Play: England’s Blind-Spot

Activity off the ball is an aspect of football that the people of the British Isles seem to overlook (unless it’s a “heroic” challenge). In any football match, how much time does a single player spend with the ball at his feet? With 20 outfield players, and often a minimum of twelve players in midfield and attack, it would be difficult to see any single player spending more than 9 minutes with the ball at his feet. This means that for more than 90% of a match, a player will not have the ball. With it comprising such a large part of the game, you would think it would be more appreciated. Hopefully, Mesut Ozil can help to change the common perception of football in England, because his defining attribute is his off-the-ball movement. If Ozil inspires English kids to work as hard on their off-the-ball play as their on-the-ball play, then he will have accomplished more for English football than the FA ever has. In fact, he may be the greatest in the world when it comes to exploiting and creating space with his movement and positioning. And at Arsenal, this will (and already has, as we will see below) pay dividends in making them more effective in attack.

First Goal Against Sunderland: Pre-Ozil Arsenal Scenario

Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey. These players, especially the former two, act rather similarly when Arsenal win the ball back: they move towards the ball to receive it. Now with players who are adept with the ball at their feet, this is not necessarily a bad thing. However, when too many players operate in this manner, the transition from defense into attack does not happen quickly enough. This has often prevented post-Fabregas Arsenal from exploiting their opponent’s poor defensive positioning upon losing possession. Looking at the first goal in Arsenal’s win at Sunderland shows the verticality and directness Mesut Ozil brings to Arsenal’s counter attack (see the video here).

As Arsenal win the ball back and attempt to play it out of their own half, Modibo Diakite breaks from the Sunderland back four in an attempt to win the ball. His attempt leads to the ball rolling calmly to Kieran Gibbs. At this point, the pitch looks like this:

Sunderland vs Arsenal - Diakite Dispossession (Ozil and off-the-ball play)

Diagram 1: Sunderland vs Arsenal – Diakite breaks position to tackle, but the ball rolls to Gibbs
(Note to those broadcasting English football: Zooming out is not a bad thing. Classico broadcasts show much more of the field, allowing one to see the overall shape and movement much more clearly.)

Now if it looks congested around the ball, that is because it is. While Diakite backpedals to join up with the back four, he does not move quickly (or even with sufficient urgency) to occupy the space he vacated. In response to Diakite’s backpedaling, Ramsey starts to make a move towards Gibbs to receive the ball, and Wilshere is boxed near the center circle (by Diakite, a Sunderland midfield further up the pitch, two Sunderland players in front of him and the ball). Mathieu Flamini is sitting in front of the back four as that is his natural position when the team does not have possession. 

Aaron Ramsey - Ozil and Off-the-ball movement

The move could have broken down had Gibbs passed to Ramsey

If Gibbs tries to play the ball to Ramsey, who has his back to goal, the most likely outcome is a pass back to Flamini (by Ramsey). With Flamini’s limited passing ability he is likely to hold onto the ball and wait for Wilshere or Ramsey to make themselves available, make a pass to a center back or the goalkeeper, or try to get the ball wide to one of the full backs. After all this has taken place, Sunderland have had enough time to re-align their back four, position their two central midfielders properly, and have their advanced wide players retreat to provide defensive support. Arsenal would hence have the task of breaking down two compact banks of 4, a difficult task for many an attacking side.

Alternate Scenario: If Cazorla had been on the pitch in place of Flamini, Wilshere would have been playing in front of the back four instead of Flamini, albeit a little higher up the pitch. With Cazorla and Ramsey occupying the positions Ramsey and Wilshere have taken in this diagram (more often Cazorla would be the one further left of the two), this would allow for the passage of play in the preceding paragraph to occur faster, and is why many teams opt for a skilled passer as the deepest lying midfielder. It also helps to have a player like that to retain possession.

Coming back to the point of Gibbs’ possession of the ball (Diagram 1 above), let’s focus on the highest level of the pitch. We see that Sunderland have a rather exposed back two, as the right back and Diakite are in relatively advanced positions compared to the other center back and the left back. Furthermore, Olivier Giroud already has the inside position on the left back. This is a good position for Giroud, but he needs support. Without electric pace or dribbling ability (like say, Thierry Henry in his early Arsenal days), a long ball from Gibbs (assuming Giroud wins the ball and maintains possession) leaves him to face the center back and the left back. Giroud could look to take them on (and probably lose possession), or he could hold the ball up and give his teammates a chance to get further up field. Once again, the issue of time comes into play. While Giroud waits for an option, Sunderland can organize defensively. So how does Arsenal exploit a disorganized Sunderland defense quickly and efficiently?

First Goal Against Sunderland: Enter Mesut Ozil

Let’s look at Mesut Ozil’s role in the situation now.

Sunderland vs Arsenal - Ozil's Run (Ozil and off-the-ball play)

Diagram 2: Sunderland vs Arsenal – Ozil’s Run

Looking at this less cluttered diagram above, one can see that there is a large amount of space behind the right back for an Arsenal player to exploit. Unlike many of Arsenal’s creative players, Mesut Ozil is more than willing to move away from the ball and into that space. In fact, if you watch the build-up to the goal, Ozil makes his run while the ball is rolling to Gibbs, but is still about 4-5 meters away. This gave him a head start on the flat-footed right back and allows Gibbs’ long ball to take the right back out the play. Now the opposing center back sees Ozil’s run and has to put the pedal to the metal to cover for his right back. This frees Giroud, as his only marker is the left back and Giroud is already ahead and inside of him. Now the first touch is divine and the pass is perfect, but it is Ozil’s direct movement that stretched the game vertically and allowed Arsenal to hit Sunderland on the counter so quickly.

Impact On Shape And Gameplay

Henry: Ozil may help Arsenal return to the playing style of The Invincibles

Things have been different since The Invincibles

Last season, Gary Neville compared the Arsenal from the beginning of Arsene’s reign through to the Fabregas years with the Arsenal of the day (i.e. of the 2012-2013 season). What became apparent during his analysis was that the kind of football described above is exactly the part of Arsenal that has gone missing in the last few seasons. For all of the possession football and short passing, Arsenal during Wenger’s earlier days have been most dangerous when countering teams with physical quickness, mental quickness, movement, and technique. Ozil provides all four of those attributes and will make Arsenal a much more threatening force on the counter attack.

It also helps to create space for Arsenal players between an opponent’s midfield and back line. Had Diakite been more aware of the threat Mesut Ozil posed on the back line, he may have been more cautious in stepping up from the back line to win the ball back. Now in this particular situation, more caution would have led to Sunderland having a better chance to prevent a goal. However, over the course of the match, not stepping up can leave too much space between the midfield and the back line, and give the likes of Santi Cazorla plenty of time and space to operate with the ball (especially when you play with two rigid banks of four that are not operating close enough). This only strengthens Arsenal’s ability to be penetrative with their possession.

Not only does this help Arsenal score goals, but it can make defending much easier. Ozil is not a classic No. 10 in the mold of Juan Roman Riquelme or the current version of Wesley Sneijder. He is a master of exploiting and creating space and will move out of central areas into wide areas (as he did for Giroud’s first goal) or move from wide areas into central areas. With that degree of unpredictability, combined with his vertical running, defenses should operate with more caution. That could mean that fullbacks exercise more caution going forward. With so many teams relying on full backs to provide width in possession, the inability to push one forward can lead to possession that gets bogged down in the center of the pitch.

Horizontal Movement & Positioning In The Attacking Third

Mesut Ozil not only strengthens Arsenal’s counter attack, but he also strengthens their ability to break teams down when controlling possession in the attacking third. Obviously his vision, passing, and shooting ability all help in this regard. However, a rather underrated attribute is his horizontal movement that can serve to pull defenders out of position (creating space for teammates) or overload the box and give Arsenal a numerical advantage in that small area. One of the best examples of the former came at Euro 2012 in Germany’s match against the Netherlands (see the first goal in the video here).

Holland vs Germany - Ozil's Movement (Ozil and off-the-ball play)

Diagram 3: Holland vs Germany – Ozil’s Positioning

In this goal, the play begins with the right-sided center back bringing the ball forward and then playing it to the right winger. As the full back makes an overlapping run to occupy the opposing left back, Ozil moves towards the same flank in order to drag the right-sided central defensive midfielder (the left side one has dropped into the left back’s position at this point). With the Netherlands fielding three players who do not track back in Wesley Sneijder, Robin Van Persie, and Arjen Robben (at least at this point in his career), Ozil’s movement has created a large amount of space to open up centrally, in front of the back four. In fact, the right-sided central defensive midfielder notices this and tries to get a teammate to mark Ozil, so that he can get back into position, but it is too late. The right winger cuts in and plays the ball to the central midfielder who has run freely into the space Ozil created. The central midfielder has both the time and space to play a through ball to the striker who scores. Ironically, the Netherlands set up with two destroyers in midfield to limit their opponent’s ability to get at their poor back line. It also contributed heavily in killing Holland’s ability to score from open play as this tactic led to a bifurcated side with not link between the back 6 and front 4.

Third Goal Against Sunderland

In the game against Sunderland, Ozil showed his value in the attacking third by overloading one side of the pitch and this played a key role in Arsenal’s third goal of the match. Firstly, if you are going to defend with two banks of four, then do not position your players the way Sunderland have here (see Diagram 4 below). This is abysmal.

Sunderland vs Arsenal - Ozil's role in third goal (Ozil and off-the-ball play)

Diagram 4: Sunderland vs Arsenal – Ozil’s role in 3rd goal

Now a classic No. 10 would sit in the same space Giroud occupies as play progresses. Doing so not only takes away a potential passing angle (different to the one Giroud offers) from the player with the ball, but it also makes it easier for the opponent to defend two players. But Ozil has positioned himself to overload Sunderland’s right side. Now Arsenal have a numerical advantage as they have four (Ozil, Gibbs, Ramsey, and Giroud) going against the Central Midfielder (CM), Right Winger (RW), and Right Back (RB) of Sunderland. Now Ramsey has a few options. He could pass to Giroud, pass to Ozil or get the ball wide to Gibbs. He makes the pass to Ozil, and Ozil plays the ball to Giroud. Giroud plays the ball to Ramsey, and Ramsey scores his second goal. This would not have happened if not for Ozil’s intelligent positioning.

Olivier Giroud: Ozil will make his teammates better players

Olivier Giroud: Ozil will make his teammates better players

Another important effect of Ozil’s positioning is something subtle; it’s how Giroud receives the pass. When you watch the goal, Giroud positions himself such as to receive the pass, keep an eye on Ramsey’s run into the box, and deliver a pass to Ramsey with his first touch. Imagine if Ozil is in a more central position and plays the ball to Giroud. Instead of being a 45-60 degree angle to goal, Giroud would have his back to goal. In this scenario, his ability to pinpoint the run of Ramsey decreases and this decreases the likelihood that he plays a good ball to Ramsey. But that is only if we assume he gets the time to make the pass. With his back to goal, Giroud would have to take at least one touch and re-orient himself to create that passing angle (unless he has taken lessons from Totti on the art of the back-heel). By the time Giroud has gotten into position, defenders would be closing him down, making the pass more difficult, and his ability to time the pass properly with Ramsey’s run decreases. In fact, there is a good chance that Ramsey would have gone offside by the time Giroud could attempt a pass. Therefore, it is critical and hugely beneficial for Arsenal to have a player like Mesut Ozil who positions himself such that it maximizes the team’s ability to score goals.

Bright Times Ahead For Arsenal

When teams have tried to shut up shop, Arsenal have struggled to break their opponents down. Often the issue is a lack of movement and a lack of an ability to exploit open space that prevents Arsenal from cutting through their opponent’s defense. With Ozil in the side, this should become much less of an issue. His positioning and movement will help create more space for Arsenal players to play in. In particular, a player like Aaron Ramsey should benefit enormously from this. Ozil’s movement will open up space for Ramsey to make runs from deeper midfield positions leading to more goals and chances created from Ramsey. Ramsey could end up forming a relationship with Ozil similar to the one Sami Khedira has with Ozil on the German national team and had at Real Madrid.

Make no mistake about it: Mesut Ozil was the signing Arsenal needed. He could very well serve as a signal to the rest of the footballing world that Arsenal are willing to flex their financial muscle. But looking at the on-the-pitch benefits in isolation, he brings qualities that few players in the world can bring. While what he does on the ball will be most noticeable, it is his work off the ball that will change and improve the shape of Arsenal’s attack in the counter-attack and the attacking third. It brings a new dynamic to Arsenal’s midfield and, perhaps most importantly, it improves his teammates and makes them more productive players. It really seems like £42.5 million well spent.

Written by Naveen Maliakkal