Unai Emery moved to the Premier League with an impressive resume. He managed Sevilla to three consecutive Europa League titles from 2013-14 to 2015-16, and he helped Paris Saint-Germain return to its perch atop the French soccer pyramid in 2018. His arrival in North London was mostly met with hope and goodwill. Arsène Wenger’s stewardship of the club had been fruitful, but it had also run its course. It was reasoned that the artful soccer Arsenal played under the smartly dressed and spindly Frenchman couldn’t win in the modern game. It was time for a more exacting tactician to take the reins, someone more inclined toward hard lines and rigorous drilling than strokes of improvised genius.1
Emery’s appointment injected excitement into a club that had felt stale for more than a decade — Arsenal picked up several FA Cup titles under Wenger, but it hadn’t won a Premier League title since it went unbeaten in the 2003-04 season — and a fan base that had been restless for just as long. But even if it was impossible to know this then, Emery’s appointment also portended the beginning of the end of club centerpiece Mesut Özil’s Arsenal career.
Özil has been featured in just 25 of the 46 Premier League games Arsenal has contested under Emery, including just one appearance this season. The German playmaker has had a few knocks here and there since Emery arrived at the club, but he hasn’t spent any significant amount of time sidelined because of injury.2 Rather, his absence is due primarily to the fact that he simply doesn’t fit with Emery’s — or Arsenal’s — plans.
A popular narrative is that Özil lacks the energy to press in the manner Emery wants him to press and lacks the defensive desire to win the ball back. Özil might be among the game’s best at getting between the lines and finding the half-spaces necessary to unlock defiant defenses, but the narrative dictates that he’s a casual defender at best and a lousy one at worst. According to the narrative, Özil is incapable of playing in Emery’s system.
That narrative would be fine if, in Özil’s absence, Emery’s Arsenal had become a pressing juggernaut and a ball-hungry monster. Maybe that will be true in the future, but the data tells a different story for the present — Arsenal is worse at winning the ball back in the attacking third under Emery than it was toward the end of the Wenger era, and it’s worse at winning the ball back in the middle third, too.
|Seasons under Arsene Wenger||IN MIDDLE THIRD||IN ATTACKING THIRD|
|Seasons under Unai Emery||IN MIDDLE THIRD||IN ATTACKING THIRD|
Of course, Arsenal has players who are better than Özil at winning the ball back (although to be fair, Özil is better at winning possession back than most people think). That’s not in dispute. Joe Willock and Dani Ceballos both play in attack-minded roles in Arsenal’s midfield, and they’ve both shown this season that they’re better at winning the ball back in the middle third than Özil has been recently. But the argument has never been about individual players; it’s been about whether Özil can play on a team that focuses on pressing to win the ball back. If Özil featured heavily for Wenger teams that won the ball back at equal or better rates than Emery’s current team does, it’s difficult to imagine that he’s suddenly not good enough anymore.
It’s hard to argue that Arsenal is any better off now than it was when Wenger was still at the wheel. Per Mertesacker, Arsenal’s current academy director and former captain, says the club is in the midst of a revolution — a revolution that is all about keeping possession and winning the ball back. But that revolution hasn’t come to fruition yet, and Arsenal has a whole host of other problems it needs to deal with if it hopes to reclaim past glory.
For starters, Arsenal’s possession rate has declined since Wenger stepped down as manager.3 The Gunners rank 16th in ball recoveries and 19th out of 20 teams in interceptions per 90 minutes this season. Each of these stats belies the management’s desire for the new-look Arsenal to be based on controlling possession and pressing. They also contradict the stated excuses for leaving Özil out of the team. Simply put, Arsenal isn’t playing well enough — or even how it claims it wants to play — to justify Özil’s exclusion.
Things look worse for Arsenal the closer the ball gets to its own goal. Only two teams give up more total shots than Arsenal per 90 minutes, and only two teams concede more shots on goal than Arsenal per 90 minutes. Perhaps as a result, Arsenal’s total expected goals against (xGA) is greater than its expected goals (xG) (12.88 and 11.69, respectively). Arsenal has gotten away with this so far — it’s outperformed both totals, scoring 13 goals and allowing just 11. Arsenal’s defense could hold steady, and it could keep grinding out 1-0 and 2-1 victories. Or it could regress, in which case fans of the North Londoners could be in for an awful lot of draws. That might be a fine strategy for a minnow hoping to avoid relegation, but it hardly smells revolutionary.
And if things don’t hold steady at the back, basic arithmetic suggests that Arsenal is going to have to score more goals than it’s mustered so far this season if it hopes to qualify for the Champions League. To do so, it might look to the guy on its roster who, not too long ago, came within one assist of tying Thierry Henry’s record for the most assists in a Premier League season. Özil ranks second in both key passes made and chances created among players who’ve played at least 100 games in Europe’s top five leagues4 since the beginning of the 2013-14 season.5 Arsenal strikers like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette might benefit from his presence and service.
In an alternate reality, Özil is still providing for his teammates, but in this reality, his career is in serious jeopardy. At 31, the maestro is nearly at the end of his prime — and whatever remains of that prime is being wasted by a headstrong manager and a revolution that only exists in the abstract. It’s hard to fathom, but Mesut Özil is no longer wanted at Arsenal Football Club.
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