In David Winner’s excellent book entitled Brilliant Orange, he included a quote from Dutch sculptor Jeroen Henneman:
“When Bergkamp was playing with Nicolas Anelka, Anelka would be covered, like this, by two men. So Bergkamp would give a very beautiful curved pass forward and a little to the side. Anelka would start to run as the pass was hit and the defenders would go with him. But because the pass was curved, Anelka is closer to the ball. Before the pass, Anelka was out of the game, marked by two defenders. Now he is completely free and heading to the goal where he will score. It’s a miracle.”
Arsene Wenger’s most successful era as Arsenal manager was defined, if not sparked by, one man — Dennis Bergkamp. If you ask any Arsenal supporter over a certain age as to who was the most technically gifted football to have graced the turf of Highbury in modern times, the majority would say Dennis Bergkamp. I consider it to be no coincidence that since Dennis Bergkamp retired in 2006, Arsenal have not won a single trophy. This is not to say Dennis Bergkamp would have kept the success coming into Arsenal as an individual. He was thirty seven years old and retired at the right time. However what has been missing since is the technical skill, grace on the ball and downright God given genius that Dennis Bergkamp provided.
Since 2006, Arsenal have continued to play the type of free flowing, creative, easy on the eye football that has become synonymous with the Arsene Wenger era since he entered English football from Japan in 1996. However there has always, to a degree, been something missing. Some attribute this to a lack of a world class striker-cum-playmaker like Thierry Henry, although Robin Van Persie in my mind certainly fell into that mould in his final years at Arsenal. Others suggest it is down to a lack of leadership from midfield, which was given by Patrick Vieira, although once he returns to full fitness on a long term basis there is no reason to think that Jack Wilshere won’t be able to provide the same style of effective leadership from the heart of the midfield.
These are both genuinely interesting points that have great weight in their favor. However as I have already mentioned, the lack of a real creative genius — somebody on another level who can make ‘miracles’ happen — has been clearly evident since the departure of Bergkamp. However Arsene Wenger may just have found his man to fill this position.
Mesut Özil has been brought to the Emirates under a cloud of disbelief on two levels. Firstly the Arsenal supporters cannot believe their club has gone out and spent a significant amount of money on a player, smashing their outright fee transfer record of £13million on Sylvain Wiltord way in 2000 by three times as much money, and on the other side Real Madrid supporters and more crucially players can’t believe their club has allowed a player of Özil’s quality to leave the club. You just have to listen to the way some of Real Madrid’s and Barcelona’s players speak of Özil and these are players who can judge quality. Cesc Fabregas intimated that he was “surprised by Özil’s departure” and Real Madrid’s Alvaro Arbeloa revealed when he first heard of Özil’s transfer to Arsenal, he thought it was a practical joke played by somebody.
All this aside, this could well be the turning point for Arsenal Football Club. Arsene Wenger’s seventeen year reign as Arsenal head coach can effectively be split into two halves. From 1996 to 2006 you have the glory years where Wenger’s travelled methods of diet and ball retention through passing revitalized English football and brought a wave of foreign creative geniuses into England’s top flight. It is certainly a fair assessment to say the Premier League wouldn’t be as popular and rich as it is today without Wenger’s at the time modern influence on proceedings. From 2006 through to the present day you have the ‘trophy drought’ years where Arsene Wenger has come under increased criticism from sections of Arsenal’s own support as a result of the Frenchman’s unwillingness to spend money in order to improve the squad.
This period of meagre success has also coincided with the construction of and payment for the Emirates Stadium, which to my mind has seen Arsenal lack transfer funds for a number of years. This lack of financial stability also brought about a stringent wage structure that saw key players such as Mathieu Flamini and Robin van Persie leave the club when their contracts either ran down or had only a year left which put Arsenal in a position where they had to sell. Now if you are to believe Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis those financial restrictions are now behind Arsenal and the money is there for Wenger to spend to make Arsenal major players in the Premier League and on the continent once again.
This wasn’t proving to be the case this past summer until the deadline day signing of Mesut Özil sent Arsenal supporters into a wave of delirium and with Wenger now seemingly able to spend big money you have to look at this as something of a turning point not just in the most basic terms of financial competitiveness but also tactically returning to what has made Wenger successful with Arsenal in the past.
Mesut Özil is one of those footballers who sees things an instant before others, he knows exactly when the perfect opportunity to pass the football is, he knows exactly where his teammates will be without taking the excess time to look up and check their runs and finally he also knows how to score goals. Remind you anybody, a certain Dutchman perhaps? Özil is a very similar player to Dennis Bergkamp, maybe not physically with the German midfielder showing all the physical attributes of a post 2010 attacking midfielder where the trend is to be small with a low centre of gravity a la David Silva and Lionel Messi, but in both mental attributes and creative terms they are the same.
Arsenal’s best, most free flowing football came at a time when Dennis Bergkamp was a regular within the side, his creativity just made things happen for other players, as Jeroen Hanneman stated he could find Anelka in space and put him in a goalscoring position without even thinking about it. Mesut Özil can do the exact same thing. It is no mystery fluke that the German born midfielder of Turkish descent has been the joint highest assist provider with Lionel Messi in Europe’s top five Leagues since his 2010 transfer to Real Madrid with the pair both on forty seven. In last season’s Champions League no player created more chances from open play than Özil who made twenty seven chances for his teammates.
At a time when Arsenal are bereft of a world class striker, although Olivier Giroud has started the current campaign like a freight train, Mesut Özil can provide the service that Giroud simply can’t not make use of, the chances the former Real Madrid man creates are so pin point perfect that they don’t require a world class striker to finish them, yes it helps but it isn’t required. With Walcott’s pace running in behind of a full back already proven to be a very useful trait in the European game there will only be more opportunities created for him through Özil’s exceptional vision which will make Arsenal an attacking threat across the board and the ability to score goals as a team is so vital in Europe as one away goal can, depending on the circumstance, effectively take the tie away from the opposition.
If we take a look at the situation at Arsenal when Wenger and the club were at their best, in the early days you had a squad with a strong core. You had David Seaman as the keeper, a strong defence marshalled by Tony Adams, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn and then a midfield containing Patrick Vieira as well as the creative talents of Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars. There was a strong core of English footballers in that team, now if we move onto the 2003-2004 season, the year of ‘The Invincibles’ you still had a very strong core albeit not an English one with Jens Lehmann as the goalkeeper, a defence led by Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure and a midfield which included once again Patrick Vieira as the enforce but also the creative talents of Robert Pires, Fredrik Ljungberg and Jose Antonio Reyes. The similarity between these two Arsenal sides? They both contained Dennis Bergkamp, he made everything tick for the players around him.
Now if we fast forward to the present day, we have an Arsenal side with a similarly strong core. You have Wojciech Szczesny as the goalkeeper who is still rather erratic at times but has illustrated all the tools necessary to make him as big a presence as Jens Lehmann and David Seaman before him. You have a defence led by the strong personality of Laurent Koscielny who is definitely one of the more underrated footballers in England and he is ably assisted by Per Mertesacker another commanding presence at the back.
Into the midfield and you have when fully fit a strong group of players with Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey acting as the British core of the midfield, they are supported by Flamini as the strong midfield presence, Arteta and Rosicky who has put in a number of excellent displays already this season. This then leaves the creative talents of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott.
You may have noticed that this is a very similar set up in terms of the dynamics within the first team to the great, most successful Arsene Wenger Arsenal sides of the past. However now, unlike in the past twelve to eighteen months, Arsene Wenger has at his disposal in the shape of Mesut Özil, a Dennis Bergkamp figure and he could very well be the man to spark a revival at the Emirates and kick start a new era of success for Wenger.
Özil will be instrumental in the free flowing football Wenger holds so dear to his footballing philosophy and that will show in the team’s performances this season and whilst some Arsenal supporters may still have the worry they are weak in other areas every side has weaknesses but player’s like Özil can mask those weaknesses and still keep you successful until they are addressed, not many players can do that. Mesut Özil provides everything needed for this Arsenal side to take the next step this season and it could herald the beginning of a new stage of Wenger’s Arsenal career, a return to the glory years.