The Beauty of Ozil

Of the many myopic views seizing the airwaves in the narcissistic culture that surrounds football these days, none is more misplaced and dangerous than the ceaseless scapegoating of Mesut Ozil. For in continually hanging him out to dry for no other reason than a lack of originality and desire to be heard, football fans and pundits alike are threatening to bury the rare joy of what Ozil brings to the game. Ozil represents the game’s most precious qualities: a blessed mix of vision, technique and intelligence. Every pass and movement he makes reveals him to be one step ahead of the opposition; every failure on his part to find a player or control the ball normally means his team-mates are not quite at his level. So it is galling to find that there are those who believe the sole measure of Ozil’s game must be how much he is prepared to run after the opposition without the ball, like some sort of expensive breed of dog that was brought in merely to be run into the ground. Admittedly, Ozil’s unique gift does not extend to seizing a game by the scruff of its neck and dictating in the manner of Cesc Fabregas or David Silva; but if a team can adapt itself to his game, he promises both successful results and performances adorned with a grace even the formerly-mentioned players cannot quite replicate.

The scapegoating of Ozil is part of a wider trend in Premier League football that has prioritised athletic prowess and pressing at the expense of creativity and improvisation. Look no further than the slow corralling of David Silva at Manchester City, the inability to appreciate the gifts of Sergio Aguero and Cesc Fabregas, and of course, the baying for blood by Arsenal fans towards Mesut Ozil. While the tactical insights brought in by Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte are undoubtedly impressive, there is something that causes one to pause for thought when their plans cannot accommodate nor adapt themselves to the gifts of players who inspire children to follow the game in the first place. If a manager cannot appreciate the gifts of one of the purest, predatory strikers the game has seen in Aguero, is he perhaps guilty of the charge that his ideas have warped him to the fundamental managerial task of enhancing the beautiful game? If the fans applaud a player like Alexis Sanchez for tracking back yet turn a blind eye to the way his dalliance on the ball kills space, are they ignorant to the beating heart of football itself? The beauty of football lies in the rapid, improvised exploitation of space by players gifted with phenomenal speed of thought, vision and technique, at least as much as in the pre-meditated, collective, tactical rehearsal that prizes athleticism over those former qualities.

In the heated atmosphere of Youtube fan channels and 24/7 punditry, players and pundits alike project more of their frustrated idea of what the game should be onto managers and players (the primary protagonists). Yes, our world is about themes such as competition and “heart”, but one can’t help feeling that the constant resort to such platitudes on football airwaves (and via Facebook memes) has twisted our ideals to the point where it is impossible to appreciate the finest qualities of the game. Simply put, Ozil must be protected and his role preserved rather than adapted for the necessities of short-termism and whimsical competitive urges. The game is about competition, but it is also about art and beauty and there is no-one who quite personifies that like the sensitive, intelligent German-Turkish no.10 at Arsenal.

 

 

Phil Jones’s absence deprives Ferguson of crucial piece in Real jigsaw puzzle

It is difficult to overstate the size of the task Manchester United face at Old Trafford tonight. In the past few weeks the lure of the Champions League has transformed Real Madrid into a collective juggernaut of stunning power and ambition, bulldozing anything and everything in its path. That Manchester United held on during that blitzkrieg first half in the Bernabeu was a minor miracle in itself, as Real battered them from every angle in an attempt to end the tie there and then.

No player better personifies the hunger and danger of a Real side sensing they might be on the cusp of a major breakthrough in their pursuit of European glory than Cristiano Ronaldo. If ever a human being’s face spoke to the torrent of ambition shaping his soul, it was that of Cristiano Ronaldo during the last league meeting with Barcelona. Whenever the camera switched to his face, sitting on the bench, it was brimming with an intensity that made one fear for Barcelona should he come on. When he did, and Gerard Pique laughingly put a hand on his shoulder to chide him for going down softly to win a free kick, Ronaldo never once returned his gaze and elected instead to stare fixedly at the spot of the free kick he was about to take. Nothing would sway him from the task at hand of decimating a footballing giant, and any Manchester United fans hoping that some residual sentiment might compromise his determination to do the same to them better think again. Ronaldo has perfected the art of channelling his unique talents and overwhelming drive into producing perfect performances in the big games, and there must be real concern that United will feel what it’s like to be drowned by that wave of ambition tonight.

They saved themselves from the worst of it in the first leg by producing a heroic performance of tactical discipline and mental fortitude, recovering quickly every time Real pierced through their battle-lines to fight another day. For all the focus on his header, Ronaldo’s performance in that match did not transcend that of offensive teammates such as Angel di Maria and Mesut Ozil – and for that, United have Phil Jones to thank. Just 21, the former Blackburn starlet had already demonstrated his aptitude for successfully containing the outstanding threats of particular individuals against Marouane Fellaini of Everton and Gareth Bale of Tottenham. Yet to repeat the same trick against a turbocharged Ronaldo in the Bernabeu showed a professional maturity beyond his tender years, and pointed the way to a possible route to victory for United in this colossal tie. If Jones could keep Ronaldo relatively quiet at the Bernabeu, and play a pivotal role in restricting Madrid to just one goal, there was reason to believe United could hold firm against them once again at Old Trafford.

Unless Ferguson is being disingenous for tactical reasons, all that has changed with the news of Jones’s injury. Ferguson has lost his trump card, and moreover, has no-one he can rely upon to do such an important job equally well. Jones has proved a worthy successor to Darren Fletcher in that role, but the latter is still absent with a chronic illness that has claimed the best part of two years from his career. Michael Carrick lacks the mobility and speed, and is anyway needed to launch what few counterattacks may fall United’s way. The task will likely fall to a combination of Wayne Rooney, Rafael and Anderson, but the brilliance of Jones’s performance in Spain lay in how he managed to marshal Ronaldo whilst simultaneously providing cover for the rest of United’s defence against the increased threats of di Maria and Ozil. His timing and awareness of when it was safe to leave one part of the pitch to negate a threat in the other – such as bursting into the United penalty area to take the ball away from Ronaldo with a superb last-ditch sliding tackle – was impeccable. Can Anderson really be expected to display the same awareness of all aspects of the threat United face in their half, or will he be so distracted by Ronaldo that he leaves holes open for others to waltz into elsewhere?

It cannot have escaped the notice that United required a full complement of players to be a match for Real in the first leg. To lose such an important cog in their gameplan before the decisive second leg places them at an immediate disadvantage that could well be the difference between going through and falling short. Still, Ferguson has at his disposal a squad that is more tactically flexible than many expected at the start of the season and he used them with all the strategic acumen of a grand chess master to pull off a hugely commendable result in the first leg. Those powers of strategic decision-making in the big matches will be tested to their fullest by Jones’s injury. If Ferguson manages to haul United through two legs against a side that can lay justifiable claim to being the best – and most offensively penetrating – in the world right now it will rank as an achievement to match the finest in his long, illustrious career.

Madrid’s recent success over Barcelona owes a lot to rapid starts

Real Madrid may have won the Supercopa, but the tie should have given Barcelona fans plenty of reason to look forward to their future battles with fresh hope. The first leg confirmed that, for all their investment and recent anointment as Spain’s best team, Madrid still lag streets behind Barcelona in terms of their ability to dominate and paint a canvas over a game in the same way as their fierce rivals. Tiki-taka may have come under fire recently, but Spain’s supreme showing at the Euros and the gulf in quality between Madrid and Barca in that first leg reaffirmed its place as the most important development in football over the last four years. Were it not Angel di Maria pouncing on a moment of hesitation from Victor Valdes with a dogged persistence characteristic of his manager, Madrid would have suffered a 3-1 defeat more reflective of the enduring gap between the sides.

However, for the time being, Jose Mourinho has been able to use illusion and a gift for making people believe in a narrative that doesn’t really exist to upset the odds. Ostensibly, Madrid’s recent ability to best Barcelona in their duels appear to be the sign of a team taking great strides forward in its development under a manager who can seemingly imbue his teams with qualities of invincibility. Upon closer inspection, however, Mourinho’s ideas for tackling the Barca problem remain starkly spartan and have not advanced over the course of the last two seasons. His entire game plan hinges on Madrid shooting out of the blocks as quickly as possible; if they can press, harry and hassle Barca into ceding an advantage in that first half-hour, he then falls back on his tried and tested ‘blanket defence’ approach to protect that lead when their legs start feeling the effects of such a lung-bursting effort initially. This achieves his twin goals of finding a way to score against Barcelona and not opening up to an extent that would allow their unparalleled attacking force to run riot.

Mourinho bills himself as a miracle-worker, so it wouldn’t be surprising if some Madrid fans felt his stellar reputation and astronomical salary should have brought them more than simply a smash-and-grab, underdog approach to toppling Barcelona. For the time being, their grumbles have been stifled by the surprising number of triumphs this approach has yielded. In their last seven meetings, Madrid’s high-octane starts have seen them snatch the crucial early lead that Mourinho needs for his counter-attacking strategy to work on no less than five occasions. There was the Supercopa 2011 first leg (Ozil, 13 mins), La Liga first match (Benzema, 1 min, after he forced Victor Valdes into a mistake that matches his most recent one for silliness), Copa Del Rey first leg (Ronaldo, 11 mins), La Liga second match (Khedira, 17 mins) and now the Supercopa 2012 second leg (Higuain 11 mins, and Ronaldo 19 mins).  It is remarkable, given the series of recent results, that Barcelona have failed to spot how important these first thirty minutes are to his increasing success against them in El Clasicos and how a simple willingness to hold firm under Madrid’s short-lived intensity will see them gain total control of the match and Mourinho run out of ideas. Had they not collapsed so pitiably in the first twenty minutes of the Supercopa it is conceivable that Madrid would have run out of steam whilst still being obliged to look for an equaliser, and Barcelona would have begun finding the spaces on the pitch any team needs to prosper.

It is already noticeable how successful results have blinded much of the media and many football fans from spotting what Mourinho’s percentage strategy continues to say about the gulf in quality between Madrid and Barcelona. Instead of acknowledging how much Mourinho relies on football’s intrinsic favouritism of the underdog (a single goal can undo a team’s hard work, whereas in tennis the gap in quality between opponents is established over hundreds of points; likewise, not many other sports allow opponents to entirely forgo the obligation of competing by adopting Mourinho’s infamous ‘parked aeroplane’ approach and still come away with a reward), a seductive narrative has emerged that Madrid are closing the gap to Barcelona who will continue to find it tough going in the future. The power of positive thinking can be limitless, and Mourinho will no doubt be encouraging such thoughts among his players to entice match-winning performances from them even beyond the first thirty minutes. However, Barcelona should not listen to the chorus of doomsayers building with every negative result and instead take note of what such a defensive strategy continues to admit about their superior ability as a footballing force. If they can start games in a better fashion in the future, there is every chance that Madrid’s huff and puff will peter out and the true gap that still exists between the teams will come to bear again.