On more than one of the tactics oriented online publications did I read that Özil had a terrific game. Some went even so far to say that it was one of his best or the best they had ever seen. I disagree.
To put matters in perspective: I am perhaps the most notorious Özil fanboy in German online football discourse. There is evidence on the internets of me likening him to Zidane and predicting greatness at least as early as spring 2009. As soon as he appeared in the Bundesliga you could point out two physical attributes that were beyond compare to anyone since the French magician: his sense of balance and his anticipation.
These two in combination allow him to control the ball in tight spaces, use feignts and play off balance passes that no one else can, simply because he has better control of his center of gravity and thus effectively more time for action on the ball. Add to that superb court vision, a gifted left foot, a modicum of work ethic and a bit of experience and you have yourself a world class player. Özil has all that and more.
Now, in the match against the Dutch Özil received praise for the kind of off-the-ball movement he brought to the game, dragging defenders out of position left and right, thus creating the kind of space that allowed his teammates to set up chances and score. I agree with that sentiment.
I disagree with the notion that, by his standards, he had a great game. I fear that there is a bias creeping into the tactics blogs that clouds their judgement for pure enjoyment of disagreeing with the mainstream. Having a fresh perspective on the game and being the hip cat on the scene should not mean we (yes, I consider myself part of that hipster crowd) should look to disagree with the TV pundits just for the sake of it.
So praising Özil for having a great game, just because he did the kind of work that goes unnoticed by the uninitiated, is bullshit. I watched almost every match that Özil played this year (just on telly it pains me to say) and I’m telling you that by his standards he had an average game at best. If you had watched him play in April, when he was at the height of his form, you could tell: Özil at his best looks like he can do no wrong.
Thanks to the wonders of the internets you actually can compare his level of competition now and then. Professional scouts use analytic systems where player actions are coded onto a database of video material. Say that for the game Germany vs Netherlands you wanted to see all instances of Özils passes being deflected for a corner kick, or all fouls committed by German players in the opposition half, the computer program gives you just those scenes to compare so that the coaching staff can analyze whatever they feel they need to address. We will have to make do with the second best, rabid fanboys who cut up scenes of their favorite player from a given game.
What we get to see, then, are just the moments where Özil does have the ball, as opposed to those off-the-ball, of which some tactics bloggers claim they made Özil their man of the match. Yet, I put it to you that when he did have the ball in the match against the Dutch, Özil was much less incisive with his passing and surging into space, and he was uncharacteristically often dispossessed on simple challenges. His time on the ball overall was put to less use than during any given game this spring. Hence, a great deal of what makes him a great player was not to the level he can be. Compare for yourself how Özil’s game looks when he is the best player on the pitch with and without the ball against pretty decent opposition:
You may want to switch off the sound of the videos if you are not into house music. Also, these fan videos on YouTube have a tendency of disappearing, so if the embeds don’t work or you would like to scout someone else, try a search of “playerX vs TeamName”. This obviously only works for high profile players.