Arsenal played admirably and held Chelsea to a 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge—a ground in which the Gunners have struggled to pick up points in recent seasons.
Arsene Wenger’s side has often been criticized for a lack of fight and intensity in the big games, but they silenced their critics on Sunday with a resolute display.
Oft talismanic midfielder Mesut Ozil was missing due to a late knock, but Arsenal did not miss him one bit.
In fact, they thrived without him.
Scared of a scrap?
For all the world-class quality the German maestro possesses, one of his biggest failings is that tough streak that all great players should possess.
Ozil has been heavily criticised in the past for failing to get stuck-in games and shying away from the grittier, less glamorous parts of the game, such as tracking back and slogging it out in midfield battles.
Juan Mata was also accused of missing this harder edge when at Chelsea, resulting in Jose Mourinho shipping him out to Manchester United before they were reunited last season.
It isn’t necessary for a traditional number 10 to track back and put in a shift, usually their skill and panache sees them through a game and provides an outlet for a side under pressure.
They’re a luxury player.
However, if you let your number ten occupy this role and allow them to abandon their defensive duties, you are effectively defending with nine outfield players, eight if the striker floats up top.
These games where Arsenal are forced to sit back and absorb a lot more pressure—against the bigger teams who do not allow the Gunners the time and space to play their preferred style—are the exact games you need players who will battle tooth and nail in the midfield medley.
Mesut Ozil does not partake in such uncouth actions. At least not very well. He has performed three tackles so far this season and only 26 in the whole of the 2016/17 season.
Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka ran the show against Chelsea, showing both their passing range and combative nature, and seeing Arsenal come away with a valued point and much more valued performance.
Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi also put in a punchy performance and justified their selection.
The former, especially, putting in a characteristically tenacious performance before his devastating, but all too familiar, injury forced him off.
Hit and miss
Another issue with Ozil is that, in spite of his blatant talent, he is very hot and cold—the polar opposite of Welbeck.
When he plays well, he’s a match winner through and through and arguably one of the best attacking midfielders in the world.
When he plays poor, he is dismal and can really hamper Arsenal.
With such an array of talent on display for the German national side, Ozil rarely sticks out as having a poor game—mainly because the Germans blow all opposition away.
For Arsenal, on the other hand, he’s often singled out as performing woefully.
Frustrating the fans
I was at the Emirates for Arsenal’s 3-0 victory over Bournemouth and he looked lackluster and lazy at times.
He played some nice passes and won the ball in midfield a few times and gained applause for it, but he also attempted nonchalant flicked passes which, against the better sides, could prove costly.
It’s this Mesut Ozil that can actively lose a game—far too easy to shrug off a ball, he can be smothered in midfield, and his sloppy concession of possession deep in the opposition’s half can be the perfect springboard for a lightning counter-attack.
Ozil’s duel success has been 12 wins to 14 losses so far this season—compared to top players in a similar position: Christian Eriksen (14:10), David Silva (21:17), Juan Mata (10:5), Georginio Wijnaldum (18:10), Willian (29:17).
Arsenal had no worries of this happening against Chelsea as Ramsey and Xhaka looked fully in control and stuck together, hunting as a pair and bullying the Blues’ midfield.
The two weren’t just ham-fisted bruisers with a penchant for punishment—they passed nicely and looked to move the ball forward when possible.
Don’t be mistaken, this isn’t an attack on Mesut Ozil. He is a truly remarkable player and one of the most talented to have graced Arsenal with his presence—his 42 assists are sufficient proof of this.
But his inconsistency and soft centre make him liable to unbalancing the team in a tough test like last Saturday’s.
Play him against the smaller sides and at home. Bring him on when you need that spark of sheer brilliance. Give him free rein when he’s on the pitch to maraud and dazzle with fabulous feet and precision passing.
Don’t play him when the backs are to the wall and every man on that pitch needs to fight for his fellow player.
Whenever you pick Mesut Ozil in a high profile match, it’s a gamble.
Who will show up to the party?
Marvellous Mesut, who’s going to show off his party tricks and wow everyone in attendance?
Or Miserable Mesut, who’s going to get far too drunk, throw up on the dog and end up with all the partygoers bemoaning his attendance and forgetting how decent a guy he usually is?
If the former turns up against the top teams, he can open up even the tightest of defences and make them bleed.
If the latter turns up, then you can forget a 0-0 at Stamford Bridge and watch through gritted teeth as Chelsea sweep six past the Gunners and Arsenal Fan TV explodes with seething, red hot, North London rage.