Arsenal's task of knocking Bayern Munich out of the Champions League, after losing the first leg by two goals to nil a fortnight ago, was by itself difficult enough in the second leg on Tuesday. It was made even more so by the team's lack of squad depth.
Conspicuously evident at the Allianz Arena was a difference in class between the two clubs' reserve benches, highlighting Arsenal's disadvantaged position.
Whereas Bayern Munich's bench brimmed with experienced players and even a couple of world-class talents, with players like Daniel Van Buyten, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller, Jerome Boateng, etc., Arsenal's bench looked decidedly empty. It inspired little confidence there was any potent armor that could be called upon to help Arsenal in the Herculean task before them.
Of course, the ever-dependable Tomas Rosicky and the hard-tackling Mathieu Flamini were on Arsenal's bench, two experienced players capable of injecting verve and purpose to Arsenal's difficult quest. But apart from these two, what other players of similar quality were available for Arsene Wenger to work with?
Serge Gnabry, who came on for Mikel Arteta in the final 15 minutes of the game, is inexperienced, a fact that manifested when he could not make better use of the two good opportunities he had.
Of the remaining three, one was the reserved goalkeeper; the others—Carl Jenkinson and Isaac Hayden—are unproven. Nor would the situation have been better had Arsenal been able to name Ryo Miyaichi among the substitutes.
As a result of this, Arsenal were unable to call upon any player of real quality and experience when the tide of the match turned in their favor through more presentable chances in the last 15 minutes.
The same thing happened two years ago in the same competition, when Arsenal were knocked out by AC Milan.
Having lost the first leg by four unreplied goals, Arsenal turned the tie around in the second leg by completely dominating AC Milan, scoring three goals in the first half and needing just one more in the second half to redeem themselves and force extra time.
But although right after resumption Arsenal had one very good opportunity to score that remaining goal, the team was too tired due to their heavy exertion in the first half. And as in the Bayern Munich game on Tuesday, Arsene Wenger lacked quality players on the bench to call upon to sustain the quest. And that's how the opportunity frittered away.
What all this means is simple: If Arsenal want to really compete against Europe’s giants, the team requires more depth. This should consist of a mixed of seasoned veterans and quality players.
In the Champions League, experienced players can make a great deal of difference when it comes to utilizing half-chances, or when it comes to managing the ebb and flow of a match.
Without the likes of Didier Drogba doing exactly this for Chelsea two years ago, I do not believe that Chelsea would have caused the various upsets they did on their way to winning the Champions League.
It is profitable, then, to have veterans in any team’s squad. Arsenal’s squad has tilted too much towards youth and inexperience in the last decade, which is one of the reasons why Arsenal have failed to capitalize on the opportunities they have had to win a trophy or two.
To remedy this, Arsenal need to retain players like Sagna and Arteta, even though they may be in the twilight of their careers. To this end, I am happy that Rosicky’s contract has been renewed.
It is for the same reason that I would welcome the return of a repentant Robin van Persie, even if my natural inclination would be averse to such a proposition.
Arsenal can also sign players like Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba, players to whom younger ones can look up. This will complement the youthful quality players that Arsenal should naturally look to sign.
After Mesut Ozil’s encouraging display on Saturday against Everton in the FA Cup quarterfinal, where he scored a goal and made one assist, the media glowed with commendation. To wit: Ozil has returned from his slumber.
After his struggle against Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Tuesday, the odes turned south.
The Daily Mail's Neil Ashton wrote that "lost and lazy Ozil might have cost Arsenal £42.5m but he isn't worth two-bob... and he's nicking a living."
The Mirror's John Cross wondered "where Arsenal’s record £42million signing has gone."
At the Telegraph, Jim White thought that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's dazzling display against Bayern "shows up Mesut Ozil’s failings."
These and similar sentiments are not only reactionary but miss the point completely. And what is the point?
Those who espouse these views are judging Ozil on a standard informed by ignorance. It results from a misunderstanding of what kind of player Ozil is, and this assumption is twofold.
The first assumes that Ozil is a Messi or Ronaldo type of player, a player expected to dribble his way through the opposition defense, riding tackles and then tucking the ball away in the corner of the net.
Anyone who knows Ozil's game knows that he is not that kind of player. I believe others have pointed this out as well. See, for example, this article by Liam Power of GiveMeSport. And moreover, have there not been similar complaints about even Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?
Have we not heard that Messi is yet to prove himself on the international stage, and that Ronaldo fails to rise to the occasion in big games? If this is true, then Ozil's failure is neither peculiar nor exceptional.
The second assumption imagines Ozil to be a James Milner type of player, a player who digs in and skirmishes to great abandon. Again, Ozil is not that kind of player, which is why he keeps getting frustrated and then in turn frustrating the fans.
In fact, Ozil is not a dribbler in the order of Messi or Ronaldo, nor is he workhorse or a skirmisher. On the contrary, Ozil is a space player.
This means that Ozil is at his best when he has space to work with, or when the team is in a counterattacking position and he has runners ahead of him to whom he can execute a dissecting pass.
Turn a match into a skirmish or deny Ozil space, which you can do effectively by putting two men on him or man-marking him, and you neutralize Ozil.
What is harming Ozil is that he isn't being played to his strength. He isn't being presented with space to work with, and he is being asked to play in a manner that exposes his weaknesses.
Get other players to do the hard work and free Ozil to exploit spaces, and you would see what a quality player he is.
The foregoing is useful to Arsenal as they prepare for next season.
Wenger should find players that are like James Milner, players with the grit to do the hard work and the dirty job. This sort of player will do the work that Ozil is being constrained to this season.
Once Ozil is freed from such a task, Arsenal will begin to reap the reward of signing him.
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