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“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

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Happy Barça Feet
Happiness... MSN
Barcelona’s football ethos is really their success.

Their approach, an approach that is possession-centric, low on stress and very happy, is what has driven the club’s exploits over the past two years.

Of course, this would appear obvious to say, but the less obvious part is how Barça’s attitude towards the game maintains them physically and mentally.

It dawned on me last Thursday morning.

I was browsing Twitter, and then Barcelona tweeted.

After beating Sporting Gijon the previous night, Barcelona players were in an early morning training session. This is a team that had just played its 16th competitive game since winning the World Club Cup in Japan on December 20; a team that had played away from home the night before.

But here was Barça, at training, doing rondos.

Barcelona’s approach to football is magnificent because lends itself to dominance, but the unsung beauty of what Barça is doing now is it doesn’t tire the players physically, or mentally, as such consistent greatness would reason to require.

In 1991, after four years of Arrigo Sacchi’s demanding football utopia, AC Milan’s players were spent and the coach himself worn out. As Aldo Serena explained later, everyone was drained after a period in which Milan won eight trophies including back-to-back European Cups.

“The players admired Sacchi and had understood his importance for their professional growth, but after four years we were quite stressed and exasperated by (Sacchi’s) concepts,” Serena said.

“There was a need for slightly less severe sessions, still tough, but a bit more enjoyable.”

So, here is Barcelona, another utopia but one seemingly on a totally different level on the stress scale.

Oftentimes we associate winning with sweat, strife and anger. These are all crucial elements, but perhaps the greatest of all is tranquillity, both physical and mental.

Barcelona are able to train more; remain fresh; go win a game; and repeat the cycle.

This is the genius of Barcelona and a credit to Luis Enrique who has fostered a relaxed spirit at the club.

He demands a lot of the players, but he has not been overbearing, a criticism he had during his time at Roma.

Enrique, a graduate of the Barça way, also demands perfection. However, is not a perfectionist as Pep Guardiola was, a genius who fell prey to the Sacchi syndrome towards the end of his Barça reign four years ago.

So, the Barcelona players are free to make mistakes and once in a while they will hoof the ball forward and scramble a goal like they did against Las Palmas on Saturday.
Neymar's winning goal v Las Palmas
They will win the game, and that is why this Barcelona team is enjoying the longest undefeated streak in club history – 32 games.

Their whole style permeates a sense of freedom. They are happy; relaxation is more sought after than perfection.

Obviously the players do suffer; there is a lot of suffering that goes into 90 minutes of top level football. Barcelona still aim to press the ball high and win it quickly. This requires energy. They still have to defend, run and chase. This requires discipline.

But, more than anything, there is a lot of smiling in a Barcelona game.

If you are fighting wars all time you will get tired, I would suppose even training sessions don’t give you as much because you are beat up most of the time. Also, you expend so much that injuries become another opponent.

Not Barcelona.

Heading into this past weekend, only Rafinha was on the club’s injury list with a raptured knee cruciate ligament that has kept him out since September. This is quite incredible considering Barcelona’s load of games and the level of competition they face.

And, it’s not just Barcelona that win.

What I mean is there are other teams winning games. Juventus, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain are winning weekly, Arsenal have also won a lot of games. But often there is either too much suffering (Juventus) or striving to attain some sort of footballing flawlessness (Bayern and Arsenal).

Barcelona are free.

Maybe winning a treble the previous season helps. You perhaps have less to prove if you are Enrique and more margins for error if you are the players.

But, then, when I read that Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar are the best friends in the history of football, it solidifies everything I am thinking.

This is just a very happy club. Because even though Barça are successful, someone should cry that he is not playing enough, someone should complain they are being played out of position and someone should sulk that they are not scoring as many goals as they would like.
Smiles
Obviously, there are talent-specific things Barcelona do that no one else can. No one can dribble everyone and score like Messi. No one can escape six opponents on the centre circle and then provide a pin-point through-pass like Andres Iniesta.

But, I am thinking everyone can aim to be free when they play too, like the Golden State Warriors are doing in the NBA or New Zealand’s All Blacks did at the Rugby World Cup last year.

“It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit,” the great John Wooden also said. That is Barcelona; that is Golden State; that is the All Blacks.

I may have gone off topic a bit, but this is a club setup worth acclaiming.

Barcelona are perfect by not being perfect. They amaze by having fun. Their style is loose and blissful and I figured this is another reason for their success, apart from their history, years of planning and transcendent talent.

Happy winning is the best winning and I just think we have never seen this kind of beast in the history of football.

Written on 22-02-2016
By Teboho Molapo





The Özil Conundrum
Happy Ozil is good Ozil
Few players illicit such wide ranging emotions as Mesut Özil and yet few have such undeniable upside. One of Europe’s most divisive players, the German is at one moment the subject of the highest hyperbole and the next, the most extreme criticism.

This particular analysis of his impact at Arsenal is one I had been mulling since the Gunners’ 3-0 league win over Aston Villa last month. At the time I felt the sample size with which to dissect Özil’s season remained too small.

Last Sunday’s meek loss to Chelsea, a subsequent knee injury that will rule Özil out until 2015 and today’s claims of a move to Bayern Munich have changed things, however. The question has to be asked now – can Özil ever be effective enough in this Arsenal team to help them become genuine league and Champions League contenders?

It’s important to ask because a year on from his £42 million club record signing, Özil at this moment comes across as a problem rather than the solution he was envisioned to be.

His club once again find themselves struggling to hang onto the coattails of those at the top, five points off the league summit already, and once again Arsenal sport the deficiencies that have stunted their recent title challenges – an unconvincing defensive unit, soft central midfield, suspect big-game temperament and questionable squad depth.

Now Özil is an added problem – a luscious creative talent so loved by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, but one that hasn’t been as malleable and open to sacrificing their natural game as Thomas Rosicky or Alexander Hleb were before him.

Scrutiny of Özil has been intense since his deadline day arrival from Real Madrid last September.

It comes with the territory.

Supporters feel entitled to immediate and measurable returns whenever a player has commanded such a sizeable transfer fee while pundits rarely miss chances to dissect any perceived misstep.

Özil’s case is peculiar – he did show immediate and measurable returns scoring four goals and assisting seven in his first 15 league games and producing the kind of game-winning display against Napoli in his first Champions League home match that had fans dreaming. But, instead of building on that start, 12 months later Özil has slipped to the point where his impending absence is being taken with a pinch of salt by many Arsenal fans.

But is Özil’s slip in form entirely his fault? Or are Arsenal, in particular Wenger, failing to give Özil the chance to be at his best?

The question needs to be asked because the status-quo is clearly doing little good for player or club.

Özil is out for three months now, long enough for Arsenal to ultimately find him dispensable or find a plan to get the best out of his unique talents.

Good Özil

When studying Özil’s impact and performances at Arsenal, the difference between ‘good’ Özil and 'bad' Özil generally comes down to where he has played – either wide or centrally.

After employing a fluid 4-2-3-1 last season, this term Wenger has shifted to a 4-1-4-1 system, a way, it seems, to fit as many of his talented ball-playing midfielders into the starting XI as possible.

The difference between the two setups is subtle but, in short, 4-1-4-1 means more of a rigid shape with two central midfielders in advance of a defensive midfielder and two traditional wide-men on the flanks.

In this setup there isn’t as much scope for positional rotation as in a 4-2-3-1 and the wide players in a 4-1-4-1 are, for the most part, expected to perform the duties of a traditional winger – staying out wide, helping out their fullback in the defensive phase, and so on.

As part of this adjustment, Özil has found himself stationed on the wing and not infield presumably because of his weaker frame and suspect defensive work-rate.

He hasn’t enjoyed this role.

He is a classic number 10 that likes to drift and not restrict his game to one section of the pitch.

On two occasions this season Özil has been given the opportunity to play centrally, in the league against Villa and against Galatasaray in the Champions League. In both games his performance was markedly improved.

Villa was perhaps the game in which Özil made the greatest impact in terms of illustrating what he can bring to the team overall. It wasn’t a perfect performance by Arsenal, or Özil, but the Gunners still completed 741 passes – the most by any Premier League side over the last two seasons according to Opta – and the German was the chief orchestrator offensively.

He completed a team-high 54 passes in Villa’s half, at a 91.5% success rate, he scored and he also assisted Danny Welbeck’s first goal for Arsenal.

Özil v Aston Villa
Minutes played
90
Goals
1
Assists
1
Attempts on target
1
Attempts off target
1
Total passes
75
Accurate passes
69
Pass completion
92%
Accurate forward half passes
54
Via Opta

Overall Özil’s involvement and energy was higher. In total he had 77 touches of the ball dotted all over the pitch as he linked play and provided outlets for passes.

    Özil’s touches v Aston Villa
Via STATS

There were other reasons for Özil’s improved display, above him playing centrally, which are important to note:
-          Arsenal’s midfield was solid with Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey establishing a good base
-          There were forward runners from deep (Ramsey) and attackers (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Danny Welbeck) looking to get beyond the defence
-          There was a better team shape with Chamberlain offering natural width on the right flank and Kieran Gibbs pushing forward from left fullback

Line-ups: Aston Villa 0-3 Arsenal














Via STATS

As a result, Arsenal was able to control play and have its most comfortable afternoon this season.

Also notable against Villa and continued into Galatasaray was Özil’s understanding with Welbeck. Özil, of course, makes strikers better; he came into this season with the most assists in Europe’s top five leagues over the previous five seasons and this is perhaps his most underrated quality when today’s playmakers are either goal-orientated or, most recently, are even picked as much for their defensive prowess as for their creativity (Oscar for Chelsea and Brazil).

This is the importance of ‘good’ Özil in relation to Welbeck, a striker that was presumably signed to elevate Arsenal by scoring goals. In order to do this he needs constant supply and potentially Özil is the player to get the best from Welbeck, and even Alexis Sanchez, as was illustrated against Villa and Galatasaray.

Bad Özil

Against Chelsea, however, we saw “bad Özil’, bad meaning Özil was largely ineffectual on the game’s life and outcome.

Playing on the right wing, he had limited influence similar to in Arsenal’s 2-0 Champions League defeat at Borussia Dortmund where he touched the ball only 33 times before being substituted in the 62nd minute – the pin-up display for bad Özil.

It’s these performances that fuel the viewpoint Özil isn’t doing enough and raise fans’ ire given their stature and importance. For a £42 million game-changing signing, there hasn’t been enough game-changing on the biggest stage.

But is bad Özil all Özil’s fault?

Against Chelsea, although Özil was not able to consistently influence the game, he still completed 47 of 57 passes and made the most key passes of any player on the pitch.

Key passes
Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal
Mesut Özil
3
Danny Welbeck
2
Cesc Fabregas
2
Alexis Sanchez
1
Kieran Gibbs
1
Jack Wilshere
1
Calum Chambers
1
Diego Costa
1
Via WhoScored

Özil touches v Chelsea
Via STATS

So, in effect Özil still did what he does to a certain degree, even if his contribution was unquestionably below par.

What was lacking more, and is a worrying trend for Arsenal in big games, were the positive points from the Villa game.

The graphic below shows Arsenal players’ average positions during the 90 minutes against Chelsea and it demonstrates just how narrow Arsenal was with only Chamberlain (15) coming on to add some width as a late substitute.

The central midfield three of Mathieu Flamini, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere was also never able to establish a platform and when Özil received the ball, frequently in wide areas, his fullback (Calum Chambers) was not pushing forwards; not only were Arsenal narrow, they were often static and were therefore easily forced to keep their passes infield and sideways by Chelsea.

Özil’s deployment, thus, had no apparent meaning as he will not get down the line to put crosses into the box and, with no incisive runs, he cannot prize open the defence through combination play or through passes.

This has been a problem where Özil is concerned – he has been picked with no visible plan from Arsenal’s coaching staff as to what he’s intended to bring from the wing.

This is generally part of what I see as Arsenal’s talent football philosophy where the pass and intricate moves are expected win games; play as many technical players as possible and they will win the game through their superior skill.

This strategy may work against smaller teams but it invariably falls short in the biggest games where the talent level is similar and the superior game-plan most often wins the game. Furthermore, it’s debatable whether this way of thinking can bring the best out of a group of players on a consistent basis.

Bringing the best out of Özil

Özil flourishes when players are making forward runs. He is happiest when slipping teammates into space. He thrives in a well-oiled system. He’s shown this with Real Madrid and Germany previously.
At Real he had Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain who loved to get beyond opposition defences. With Germany he’s had Thomas Muller.
Unfortunately because of injuries Özil hasn’t had the frequent opportunity to play with Arsenal’s two most direct players, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott. Özil’s better performances in an Arsenal shirt have predictably come with Ramsey in the side because Ramsey is a central midfielder that likes to get ahead of the play and into the box.

Walcott then provides a consistent threat running in behind opposition defences.

The below graphic from Squawka demonstrates the understanding and danger Özil created with Walcott during a league game at Sunderland last season. A visibly high number of passes are made by Özil into Walcott’s right-flank zone.

During the same match, Özil made 70 passes, 24 of which were to Ramsey according to Squawka.

Özil stats since 09-10
Via Opta

Too many number 10s

“What is Wilshere? Basically a number ten. He played his whole life at number ten. Somebody had to go out there. Is it Wilshere, Özil, Ramsey and nobody is really natural out wide? So you keep good players out or you try to get them together. We organise to give him freedom. We have that desire to play well altogether and I think we can really achieve it. We can have a fantastic team. The main man is the one with the ball. The others have to give him solutions to play. Every team finds a way to go through its strong point.”- Arsene Wenger, September 2014

Unfortunately, Arsenal have so many players that can play in the number 10 position it has led to Özil being pushed wide. Even after Özil’s fine outing at Villa, Wenger pointed out there were “ten others who want to play in the middle”.

It’s true.

Touch...
When everyone’s fit there’s simply an overload of players that can be classified as forward thinking midfielders. Özil, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla, Rosicky and arguably even Sanchez, are all happiest behind a central striker. Add to that the likes of Walcott, Chamberlain, Joel Campbell and Serge Gnabry and you’ve got quite a headache selecting a starting XI.

It’s a consequence of Arsenal’s transfer strategy (an argument for another day perhaps) and Wenger’s eternal love for gifted attacking midfielders.

The solution is to use a 4-2-3-1 formation with Özil as the number 10. Clearly Özil is Arsenal’s best option in creative hub role. He was their 2013/14 assist leader, he leads the club in key passes this season and he’s averaged the most successful passes per game in the final third (31.2) in Europe’s top five leagues this campaign.

Arsenal assists in all competitions 2013/14

Starts
Sub
Assists
Mesut Özil
39
4
14
Olivier Giroud
44
7
10
Santi Cazorla
40
7
9
Aaron Ramsey
28
4
9
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
14
8
5
Theo Walcott
13
5
4
Jack Wilshere
28
7
4

However, don’t play Özil every game, manage him better.

One less frequently discussed fact is the amount of minutes he has clocked over the past five years as a result of his success at club and international level.

Özil has logged 12,614 league minutes alone. He’s also reached the semi-finals of the last three major tournaments with Germany (2010, 2014 World Cup, Euro 2102) and back in December he tellingly cited fatigue in his adaption to the English game:  “It’s much more tiring to play in this league.  It’s more tiring because the game goes backwards and forwards.”

At Real, Jose Mourinho would habitually withdraw Özil around the 70 minute mark, whereas this season he had already completed the full 90 minutes in six of the eight games he started. Indeed, according to WhoScored, Özil has averaged 83.2 minutes on the pitch per appearance since moving to the Emirates.

Özil’s minutes this season
Date
Opponent
Minutes played
23 August 2014
Everton
90
31 August 2014
Leicester City
90
13 September 2014
Manchester City
90
16 September 2014
Borussia Dortmund
62
20 September 2014
Aston Villa
90
27 September 2014
Tottenham
90
01 October 2014
Galatasaray
76
05 October 2014
Chelsea
90

The solution is being flexible tactically and also in the usage of Özil and Arsenal’s other highly talented midfield players.

Whenever possible, employ the 4-2-3-1. Have Özil in his favoured central attacking position where he can thrive as he did spectacularly for Germany at the 2010 World Cup and in Real Madrid’s 2012/13 Spanish La Liga triumph. On other occasions use a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3, with or without Özil.

Such flexibility in personnel might even help with Arsenal’s injury problems.

        Possible solution
       Back four
                  Flamini      Ramsey (Wilshere)
Walcott (Chamberlain)          Özil            Sanchez/Cazorla
         Welbeck

In my preferred XI, Flamini would nominally start in defensive midfield as a ‘balancer’, being the one established midfielder in Arsenal’s squad that enjoys the dirty defensive side of the game. Ramsey would be alongside Flamini to provide forward runs and his overall sterling contribution. Walcott and Chamberlain provide the pace over the top on the right wing.

The second ‘balancer’ is to have Cazorla or Sanchez on the opposite flank. They are slightly more technical and can get involved in Arsenal’s famed intricate play. They are also dangerous individually and have the sort of infectious energy that makes them useful defensively.

Conclusion
Artist...
Özil hasn’t done himself many favours with his body language. Yes, he hasn’t been happy playing on the wing but the overall discrepancy between his influence when he’s central and when wide is too great for a player of his quality.

That his contribution should drop so drastically is a valid criticism. This he has to improve.

Perhaps Özil can also shoot more often than the 1.47 shots per league game he’s averaged over the past five years, something that could possibly open more passing lanes.

However, other criticisms seem to be somewhat over the top. Criticisms of his defensive contributions, for example, seem to stem from the fact that Özil doesn’t chase and make slide tackles.

"I think it's hard to criticise him. Özil is Özil. If you were expecting Özil to be super aggressive and to be running miles and miles from side to side and to show great enthusiasm and aggressiveness, this is not Mesut.” – Jose Mourinho, June 2014

He is not a tackler nor was signed to be one. In any case Özil is a player that instead relies on positioning and tactical awareness to make interceptions. At the World Cup, for example, Özil had the second most attacking third ball recoveries.


Possession Won Attacking 3rd
Neymar
11
Mesut Özil
6
Gonzalo Higuain
5
Arjen Robben
5
Yaya Toure
5

The biggest point here, though, is: having spent so much money on Özil, Wenger has to be brave enough to give him a proper platform and opportunity to excel. Özil was signed to elevate this Arsenal team and his upside when on song far outweighs any negatives.

Don’t play him 90 minutes every game, also. Arsenal has other exceptionally talented players that are capable, depending on the game, opponent and situation. Manage Özil well and at least give him a chance to prove he’s worth his fee.

Give him confidence, too, as Mourinho pointed out.

“He’s a very sensitive boy. He needs confidence. He needs trust. He needs to feel that people are with him. When he’s on the pitch, every time he touches the ball, the ball goes beautiful. And he’ll always find the right man on the right place.” – Jose Mourinho, June 2014

To others it may sound like too much accommodating to do for one player, but Özil is simply too good at what he does to continue down the same path.

If over the coming months the club does come to feel Özil’s needs are not worth the trouble then his future probably does lie elsewhere.

The ball is really in Arsenal’s court, because Özil will always be Özil.

Points:
-      Arsenal aim to play talent football, winning on talent, with no coherent strategy. This would explain Wenger’s move to 4-1-4-1 which aims to squeeze in as many of his ball-playing wizards into the starting line-up as possible
-    Özil has been overplayed during his time at Arsenal averaging 83.2 minutes on the pitch per appearance under Wenger. He has been physically overwhelmed
-      To get the best out of Özil he has to play centrally. There’s a fundamental difference between playing in the middle and outside. Özil also has to have willing runners and a stable system, which in any case are ingredients to a good team
-      The position of Sanchez in relation to Özil is also important. He can create moves intricately in close proximity with the playmakers and also use his speed in open space to cut open defences 

Written 13-10-2014
By Teboho Molapo

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