Mesut Özil’s vision prevents Arsenal from drifting against PSG

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil

As game-seizing moments go, Mesut Özil’s part in Arsenal’s defibrillation after a deathly first half against Paris Saint‑Germain was among the more quietly understated acts of on-field leadership.

Arsenal needed it, though. They were outplayed by PSG for most of this 2-2 draw, overrun in midfield and flattered to escape with a point.

In avoiding defeat they were indebted to a moment of stirring incision against the head from Özil, who has often been accused of disappearing in these big games. “As soon as there is physicality involved, Özil disappears,” Raymond Domenech, always good for a line, had announced on French TV before kick‑off. And this is how Özil has been cast by some: a man for the small occasion, the blunt end, those moments where the going gets smooth.

A delicate, gossamer presence, he can be frustrating at times. But there is an element of category-mistake in this, a longing for a different style of footballer altogether, some elbow-pumping marvel, head bandaged, eyes glazed with the blood of his victims. Özil is something else, a high-spec moving part and a player who looks to persuade rather than wrench the game his way.

Here he started slowly then led the fightback as Arsenal went 1-0 down, producing a sublime moment just before half-time to help Alexis Sánchez win a penalty with the help of a dramatic fall. In the end Özil’s elegantly assertive reverse pass to open the space is all that will really stick in the mind from a flat Arsenal performance against a powerful PSG team.

In the buildup Arsène Wenger had called this “a cup final” and before kick-off on a chilly night at the Emirates there was a glaze of genuine event-glamour around this huge, spiffy, floodlit glass-and-steel spaceship. PSG brought a boisterous support and a team with enough star wattage to exude a certain A-list edge as they lined up at the start.

For both clubs this was a chance to grab hold of Uefa’s velvet bag and in effect take charge of their own destiny in the knockout rounds by topping the group. It was also the kind of night where Arsenal fans might once again reasonably look to Özil to exert some defining influence.

Or perhaps not, depending on your view of English football’s most deliciously polarising creative sprite. This time around there was an added urgency. Even against one of football’s great uber-spenders, Özil was the most garlanded player on the pitch, the only one to be a winner in a World Cup final, the most obvious A-lister. His form has been good, too, with only Lionel Messi and Neymar involved in more Champions League goals than the German’s four goals and two assists.

Another fact often lost in the margins of the small screen: Özil runs a lot too. Before this round of games he had covered more yards in the competition than any player with as many goals. Here it was his aggressive running down both flanks that dragged Arsenal back into this match.

Albeit it did take Özil seven minutes to have a significant touch of the ball. Instead it was PSG who settled into an easy passing groove, the midfield all muscular craft in Thiago Motta, Grzegorz Krychowiak and the brilliantly intricate Marco Verratti. Blaise Matuidi swarmed over Sánchez on the Arsenal right, and it was from that side that the opening goal came, Matuidi driving into the box and crossing for Edinson Cavani to tap home.

Steadily, awkwardly at first, it was Özil who led, not so much the charge (Özil doesn’t charge) as a spectral glide back into the game, Arsenal’s No10 picking up the ball in those in-between areas and driving at the PSG defence.

And really to blame Arsenal’s timidity here on their record signing – as some no doubt will – makes little sense. What Arsenal were missing in the first half, as they had in the draw at Old Trafford on Saturday, was a midfield to knit the game and keep the ball and supply the players in front of them. This is an unusual late–Wenger Arsenal, an Arsenal with an Arsenal-shaped hole at its heart. There is plenty of fight here. But without Santi Cazorla, their smallest, slowest, most gifted ballplayer, the passing carousel has for now stalled.

Here Aaron Ramsey stepped into the middle to add some drive after the barren functionalism of the Coquelin-Elneny partnership. As the first half wore on Ramsey did make the odd surging run beyond his inside forwards. Then finally Özil had his moment, taking the ball in space on the right, stopping at the edge of the area and producing a magical reverse pass to Sánchez, who jinked and tripped. Olivier Giroud scored the penalty.

There will be no assist for Özil, no hard statistical record, but it was his influence that dragged Arsenal back into a match they then led briefly through a Verratti own goal. PSG earned a deserved point via Lucas Moura’s headed equaliser and are likely to win Group A. For Arsenal the need to find a little rhythm in midfield and a partnership to complement their creative conductor remains a more pressing issue.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Barney Ronay at the Emirates Stadium, for The Guardian on Wednesday 23rd November 2016 22.44 Europe/London

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