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04 May 2018

Arsenal: Martin Keown's Özil rant says more about punditry than the Gunners

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It's... complicated

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Mesut Özil is a playmaker

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Viral content keeps people clicking

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Jenas provides the antidote

Reuters/Andrew Couldridge

On March 11th, 2018, German playmaker Mesut Özil became the fastest player in the history of the Premier League to register 50 assists, reaching the milestone in 141 appearances - two games fewer than the record's previous holder, Eric Cantona.

54 days later, Arsenal were eliminated at the semi-final stage of the Europa League by Atlético Madrid, a defensive wall of a team that makes Juventus' back line look like Kevin Keegan's Newcastle.

They were eliminated, of course, because Özil didn't track back enough. He didn't run around enough. He wasn't as scary as Patrick Vieira. He didn't leave the pitch drenched in his own blood, sweat, and tears.

That's the impression you get when watching Martin Keown's post-match assessment of Özil's performance. 

It's... complicated

You've probably seen it by now. It's made the rounds on Twitter, like every video of a former player angrily saying things about a current player does.

First of all, you might notice that Keown's argument doesn't really hold up. 

Arsenal were knocked out because they, like most teams, failed to score at the Wanda Metropolitano, and because Laurent Koscielny kicked a clearance into his own face in the closing stages at the Emirates.

REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

They dominated both games, were denied by the brilliance of Jan Oblak in the first leg, and were eventually punished for the decision of the club's coaching staff to drill into their defenders the idea that Diego Costa must be allowed to score against them at all costs.

Quite why Arsenal's chances of scoring in the second leg would have been increased by Özil tracking back and being further away from goal isn't exactly clear. Nor why he should be criticised for apparently hiding out wide, after being told by his manager to play out wide in a 4-3-3 formation.

"He picks and chooses his games," Keown began, without offering an explanation as to why Özil would have simply decided not to bother in the second leg of a European semi-final.

"He'll have some emotional breakdown and he won't be able to play at the weekend," he went on, reminding us all that footballers should be manly men and manly men should keep their emotions to themselves, thank you very much.

Mesut Özil is a playmaker

The pundit's biggest issue with Özil is his work-rate, his lack of desire to 'put a shift in' like the great playmakers of the age. 

For all their contributions on the ball, of course, what we will really remember of Iniesta and Pirlo, of Cruyff and Laudrup, of Ronaldinho and Messi, is the way that they really got stuck in to their opponents, flying into tackles and charging back to man the defensive ramparts when they lost the ball.



REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

Nonsense.

If Keown has an issue with the concept of a midfield playmaker, that's a different question. But to judge Özil on a list of criteria largely unrelated to his role is as pointless and uninformative as forcing Alexandre Lacazette to do ten laps of the training ground because he wasn't on the goalline to clear Costa's deciding goal.

Viral content keeps people clicking

The bosses at BT Sport aren't likely to be overly fussed by this, of course. Keown has made the headlines, people have clicked on their content, people are talking about their programme.

Sensationalism gets clicks, the irate spluttering of a club legend gets retweets, and the thoughtful counterpoints presented by Jermaine Jenas in the seat next to him are largely ignored.

It is the same reason why the more considered analysis previously provided by BT's European Football Show was cancelled and Robbie Savage was chosen as co-commentator for both legs of a European semi-final - because he might say something controversial, something that will get people talking about nothing in particular.

REUTERS/David Klein

Ironically, the problem with this sort of punditry isn't all that different from Keown's problem with Özil. 

We don't want a playmaker to try and drift into space and play a delicate, precise pass, we want somebody to thunder into a tackle and kiss the badge while they do it. 

We don't want someone to explain the nuances of football tactics and why Arsenal's didn't work, we want somebody to shout about how they didn't work hard enough.

Jenas provides the antidote

Whether it is Lampard on Dele Alli or Scholes on Paul Pogba, the complaints of yesterday's footballers generally seem to fall into the same category; that things were better in our day and none of this lot would have gotten into my team. 

This is why Jenas' approach is refreshing, and why his stock as a pundit continues to rise. Amid all the talk of Keown's opinion, perhaps this should instead be our focus. 

He had clearly thought his comments through, and Keown seemed flustered when presented with the rationality of it all - that Özil has won the lot with Real Madrid and Germany and been consistently excellent in doing so, so perhaps it isn't his running that is the problem.

Jenas is a pleasing antidote to the "Club legend blasts X" and "You won't believe what club legend has to say about Y" headlines that clog up our Twitter timelines on an apparently daily basis. 

If football punditry is to become more than a contest of who can be the loudest, angriest, and most retweet-able, we will need more like him.