It’s the 37th minute of the Arsenal-Newcastle match and the score is 0-0. I’m watching the game on mute while listening to two prominent sports podcasters dish out freezing cold political takes.
I haven’t looked at Twitter once–which is an accomplishment for the 2020 version of soccer-watching me–so I have no idea what the consensus is on any of the players’ performances. This is huge. Why? Because I usually get so lost in the innumerable Twitter takes during the course of a match that I lose the ability to form original opinions.
*the halftime whistle just blew*
However, now that I’ve managed to center my entire focus on a single stimulant1Besides writing this blog post. for 45 whole minutes, I’m positive about one thing, and one thing only: Mesut Özil is fucking incredible.
Full disclosure: I’ve had that opinion of Özil since 2011-ish, when he was in the early stages of his four-year stint as Real Madrid’s No. 10. Can you blame me for stanning, though? It’s so easy to swoon over his game.
He plays every match in a perpetual state of zen. No matter the situation, he’s the epitome of calm. If a pass is bulleted into his feet with his back turned to goal and a defender glued to his back, he’ll find a way to re-direct the ball to an open teammate. If he’s stranded near the touchline, sandwiched in between two defenders, he’ll pull off a hybrid version of Andres Inieta’s croqueta to cycle the ball back into midfield. And if a through ball leads him into a wall of defenders with no support, he’ll feint his way into borrowed time until help arrives.
*the second half just started*
I used to play Manager Mode on FIFA with Manchester United2Unfortunately for me, I’m a United fan. all the time in the early 2010s. My first transfer transaction in FIFAs 2011-2013 was always a bid for Özil. So when rumors started popping up in the Summer of ’13 that he was set to leave Real Madrid to make way for Gareth Bale, I immediately began dreaming of the possibilities.
Imagine Özil linking up with Rooney and van Persie at Old Trafford…
But it wasn’t to be. Özil wound up moving to Arsenal while United signed Marouane Fellaini3smdh. I was forced to continue admiring from afar.
*Aubameyang just made it 1-0*
I think we can all agree it’s easier to play on the wings than in central positions. Think about it: you have the touchline for protection and have more opportunity to run at defenders with speed, which gives you the good fortune of letting your instincts take control. On the other hand, when you’re in the middle of the park, there’s zero cover. You’re exposed at every angle, which means you have to be more reliant on your mental quickness rather than split-second instincts.
And if there was a Speed Of Thought Test for footballers, Özil would be in the 99th percentile.
In the build up to Aubamayeng’s goal, Özil received a pass from Dani Ceballos just inside Newcastle’s half. He quickly controlled and turned upfield. Two opposing players were on his back, so he turned 180 degrees to buy time to search for a pass. One of the players that was flanking him on his initial burst forward circled back to pressure him. Instead of passing the ball as soon as the pressure was mounted, Özil held it until the very last moment, releasing it just before his defender had a chance to nick it away. This gave Ceballos–who Özil passed to–a few extra milliseconds on the ball before spraying it out wide to Nicolas Pépé, who sent the cross into the box that led to Aubamayeng’s opener.
*Pépé just made it 2-0*
Özil is often branded a lackadaisical figure by his skeptics. It’s true that for every defense-splitting through ball he conjures up, there’s three or four moments of frustration that follow. Those moments usually stem from a lack of perceived hustle during Arsenal’s press, or the decision to question a referee’s decision rather than playing to the whistle.
You’re probably familiar with Özil’s famous indication of frustration. He skips forward with his left foot leading, arcs his head back and lifts his arms to the sky, as if asking the Soccer Gods why he’s been tasked to co-exist with teammates who can’t operate on the same absurdly precocious wavelength as him.
Despite the inevitable fits of irritation, Özil always provides his teammates with opportunities to make their mark on the game.
In the 66th minute, he gave Pépé the chance to notch a second assist. Özil received a short pass in a small pocket of space halfway between the center circle and Newcastle’s 18-yard box. All in one motion, he controlled the ball with his right foot and played an outside of the boot, left-footed through ball down the right flank. The pass rendered Pepe’s marker moot and gifted the Ivorian rare free time in the penalty area to pick out a pass. He managed to zip a low cross to Aubameyang–who made a delayed run into the box–but the ball was a few inches off-target, which ruined the angle for a potential first-time strike. Instead, Aubameyang was forced to take a first touch, and then a second, and then a third before chipping the ball to the back post. It skimmed the top of the crossbar and went out for a goal kick. Chance lost.
*Özil just scored*
The best counter attack goal of all-time occurred on May 5, 2009 at the Emirates. It was Manchester’s United third and final goal in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final.4I’m incredibly biased and you’ll never convince me the goal *isn’t* the best counter of all time. The second best counter attack goal of all time took place on September 27, 2011. It was Real Madrid’s first in a routine 3-0 win over Ajax in the Group Stages of the Champions League.
Özil was a key cog in the machine of that legendary Real Counter. Of course, it helped that he crafted the goal alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema, but Özil’s efficiency of movement, speed of play and raw ability was crucial in turning the break into a goal.
That same movement, speed of play and ability was on display during Arsenal’s third goal vs. Newcastle.
Özil’s cheeky run behind his defender unlocked the space needed to carry the ball into the final third; his ability to weight a perfect pass gave Pépé the space and time to confidently face up his defender before slipping the ball to Alexandre Lacazette; and his continued movement deeper into the box put him in the perfect position to slot the ball home.5But let’s also take a moment to admire Lacazette’s piece a skill to find Özil in front of goal. DIR-TY.
It wasn’t the spiciest counter attack ever6Hell, it wasn’t even a true counter attack., but the move was phenomenal and it featured Özil in full pomp. And there are few things in soccer more beautiful than that.
*Özil was just subbed off*
I’m learning to re-love soccer. I’ve been invested in making Soccerlit a “thing” for the past four years, which has strained my relationship with the game. I rarely interact with it for fun anymore. Every time I’m reading about it, listening to people talk about it or watching it, Soccerlit always enters the equation.
Watching Özil today forced my brain to place emphasis on the joy of watching soccer rather than the work of making content out of it. It was a much needed reminder. The happiness that soccer gives me is the reason Soccerlit exists in the first place. It’s important I never forget that.
Shoutout to Mesut Özil for being the first footballer to inspire me in a very long time.