Everybody wants to be the number 10. The player that fans can point to and say, "Sure the goal was nice, but his pass made it happen," or "her movement in transition is why we had a breakaway in the first place." Few attackers in world football get to live that dream as clearly and fully as Mesut Özil. He has a relatively free role in the Arsenal system, and his passing and movement consistently show he deserves that space, as Özil can create goals from situations where few players could even contribute to a shot.
The romantic number 10 is a figure of some mystery, a player whose actions exceed not only expectation but perhaps measurement as well. There are in football indeed many things that are difficult or nigh-impossible to statistically evaluate using existing tools. And as such, much has been written about what is unquantifiable or even ineffable about Özil's game. However, his contributions this year have been anything but.
As injuries have ravaged Arsenal, Özil has been the driving force behind their 3-1-0 record during the injury crisis, regularly creating big chances and running goal-scoring moves.The German playmaker is not only driving Arsenal's attack, but he is doing so in ways that fill up the scoresheet.
The Quantifiable Brilliance of Mesut Özil
The top line numbers can hardly be denied. Özil has 13 assists to lead the Premier League. In fact, he leads all players in the big four European leagues in this category, with Raffael of Borussia Mönchengladbach far behind in second with just eight assists. Furthermore, since the 2010-2011 season only four other times has a player assisted 10 or more goals through the first 16 matches of a season, and all four of them played for either Barcelona or Real Madrid. So they all had a little more help than Özil with elite forwards finishing on the end of their chances. (The four players were Ángel Di María, Lionel Messi and twice Cesc Fábregas.)
Of course, assists can mislead. A player might get lucky a few times that he happened to make the pass before his teammate took an incredible shot. To be confident that a player with big assist numbers is in fact pulling the strings requires a bit more statistical evidence.
And in every category, Özil stands out yet again. He has assisted 65 shot attempts. This is the most in the Premier League this season. It is the highest number of shot assists in the first 16 matches of the season in any of the big four European Leagues since 2010-2011. Borussia Dortmund's Nuri Sahin from the title-winning side of 2010-2011 comes closest with 61 shot assists through 16 matches.
Statistics that evaluate chance quality perhaps rate Özil even more highly. He has assisted 16 big chances with passes that played a teammate into a one-on-one with the keeper or similar situations where a goal is likely to be scored. The only players to equal this number are Fábregas at Barcelona and this year, Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Dortmund. By expected assists, a statistical measure of the quality of chances created, Özil's 9.5 xA are most of any player since 2010-2011. Mkhitaryan and Fábregas again are the only others with more than nine xA through 16 league matches.
It all adds up to a very impressive picture. Across a variety of key statistical indicators, not only is Özil contributing at an impressive rate, but in fact no one in the top four European leagues has quite matched his creative output in any of the last five seasons.
No one in the top leagues, over the last several years, has directly produced chances like Mesut Özil this season. It has been an exceptional run.
Can Arsenal count on Özil to keep this up?
Certainly no one expects him to nosedive. With 62 assists, 58 expected assists and 72 big chances created over the last several seasons, Özil has a clear track record. But even a great player can run hot. Fábregas tailed off significantly after putting up dominant numbers early in 2013-2014, as he added only five assists and 3.8 xA over Barcelona's remaining league matches. Overall, the players who put up the biggest assist numbers early in the season did trail off in the second half.
The following chart takes the players with the 30 best early-season records in assists, expected assists and big chances created, and then compares their production in the first 16 matches of the season with their production in the final 22 matches (or 18 for Bundesliga players). Assist numbers tend to drop off the most, demonstrating the noise inherent in this statistic. Expected assists are the most sustainable, while big chances created fall in between.
For his career, Özil has averaged about 0.45 expected assists per 90 minutes played, adding up to about an assist every other match, since Özil's assists and expected assists basically track one another overall. This year he's running at 0.65 xA/90 (minutes), meaning about two assists every three matches, and he has in fact assisted at a rate of nearly a goal per match. It seems likely that Özil will drop back toward his typical (still excellent!) rates over the remainder of the season.
A moderate downturn in form is likely, but far from guaranteed. Among players who light up the charts above, Wolfsburg's Kevin de Bruyne stands out for how his big early season numbers last year (nine assists, 8 xA) only portended continued brilliance (another 11 assists and 9.6 xA) down the stretch. If Özil can maintain this form like De Bruyne, rather than falling off as Fábregas did, he has the potential for a statistically historic season. Perhaps more importantly, those extra goals could be the difference between an Arsenal title run and another low-drama top four finish.
What Özil can do on a football pitch is undeniable. This season, and in particular in crunch time over the last few weeks, Arsenal's playmaker has consistently leveraged these ridiculous skills into football results. Of course, great numbers for Özil are not exactly new. Those excellent career statistics show that Özil has never been the purely unquantifiable genius his most romantic fans might wish to conjure. But this year, in a situation where his skills have been needed most, Özil has been directly producing goals not just with flair but in historic numbers.
All data provided by Opta.