Words Justin Salhani
I’m an Arsenal fan, but more so a fan of Arsene Wenger’s philosophy and values. So yesterday, when Barcelona and Man City went tête-à-tête, I watched Wenger’s men face off with Ludogorets, a Bulgarian outfit lacking the glamour to ever draw a manager in the ilk of Pep Guardiola.
For some, watching football is a devotion drawn from a personal connection to their team. For others, watching football is a pleasure. I subscribe to both at the moment, but that may change when Wenger departs in the coming years. Arsene’s footballing values have largely shaped my own. He was the first manager whose team made me dream of what football could and should be. Every time I am fortunate enough to see Arsenal play, it is a pleasure.
Pleasure is often derived from the aesthetic, and for me, that appreciation primarily comes from watching the play of Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil. My preference between the two players cycles back and forth throughout Arsenal matches, changing by the minute.
Santi’s technical excellence and ambidexterity means he’s the most reliable player on the pitch. He’s also one of a golden generation of technique-focused Spanish midfielders, along with Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, David Silva, and Xabi Alonso, who have an incredible cerebralness to their play. His passing isn’t only precise in its weight, its timing is perfect. For players like Santi, the pitch is a canvas. Each pass is just one brush stroke in a planned masterpiece painting.
Yesterday, Santi was absent through injury. So all eyes were on Ozil and his eyes. Ozil’s style is more subdued when compared with Santi's. His movement comes off to some as languid or even disinterested, though that is certainly not the case. Where Santi is the constant, Ozil is the variable. Much like Santi, Ozil’s mind is constantly clicking -- measuring angles, distances, estimating the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates and the nearby opponents.
The beauty of Ozil’s game is its subtly. He does things that might make a layman watching his first Arsenal match say, “What’s so hard about that?” But it’s the calculation, the timing, the precision that makes Ozil stand out from his contemporaries. He makes the spectacular look simple.
Yesterday, a standout contribution came with Arsenal trailing by two goals. Ozil plays a pinpoint cross that slips its way through traffic and lands on the foot of Granit Xhaka. A vital pass, but he follows it with a moment that highlight reels will never forget.
At 2-2, Mohammed Elneny plays a curved ball over the top of the defense. Ozil is beyond the defenders in space when he receives the pass. At first glance, it appears Ozil is offside. But his run was succinctly timed and the flag stays down.
Ozil brings down the ball with the grace of an antelope. His preferred left foot extended and his back foot still airborne. In days of yore on the Russian steppes, the youth of countries like Kazakhstan were taught to hunt by waiting for all four of the horse’s legs to leave the ground. Only then, could they release their spear at fleeing prey. Equilibrium brings stability, and Ozil’s touch to bring the ball under control while running at full speed shows just as much.
He then looks up and faces the Ludogorets goalkeeper. His eyes focus on the man in front of him, but one of Ozil’s strengths is his awareness. When Ozil feints or deceives, he doesn’t deceive the man in front of him - he puts off an entire defensive troop.
As he nears the keeper, he organizes his feet and gives his hips a slight twist. The hip-twist signals to the keeper that Ozil is going for goal - a lob - and so he must spring forward, arms at full stretch, in the hopes that he makes Ozil add a bit too much power and send the ball sailing over the net.
But you see, Ozil’s eyes don’t just see what is in front of him in a literal sense. They see the future. They anticipate. Ozil’s touch is not a lob to the far post but a delicate lift over the keeper’s left arm. His ingenuity has now left him with an open goal. But the path is not clear. Behind him are onrushing defenders. Their motivations for stopping Ozil are existential.
Ozil works in milliseconds. These few instants between the lift over the keeper and what comes next is when Ozil is at his best. It is when a lifetime of technique, crafted by street football, merges with a calm cerebrality that intakes all the data around him and instantly calculates and recalculates the best path to goal. Each instant, his senses feed his brain an infinite amount of data and each instant he slightly alters his solution. We could call it instant problem solving. And he makes it look so easy.
As the lobbed ball feels the pull of gravity, Ozil’s mind tells him the onrushing defenders expect him to shoot. Instead, Ozil meets the ball immediately after it bounces with a slight touch on the outside of his left boot. The touch not only takes out the first onrushing defender but puts him in front of the goalkeeper, who can no longer recover without conceding a penalty.
If you freeze the frame at this point, you see Ozil surrounded by predators. Three players form a triangle around him -- one behind him on the right, one onrushing on his left, and one slightly ahead of him blocking his path to goal. It looks almost inescapable. But Ozil uses the second defender, who is still making a recovery run, to his advantage.
A small lift of his left leg forces both defenders to leave their feet. Instead of shooting, he touches the ball in a horizontal line across the goal, anticipating where both defenders will land. He takes one more touch to give himself a slightly better angle and erase any doubt of a mishit and passes cleanly into the back of the open goal. The wreckage of spread legs and the God facing glances left in Ozil’s wake resemble a piece of art.