Sunday’s game at Emirates Stadium could be one of those “I was there moments” for Arsenal fans.
The appearance of Mesut Ozil against Stoke may be the most anticipated home debut since that of the player to whom he is often compared – Dennis Bergkamp.
Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Tony Adams, Ian Wright, Liam Brady all made their bows when they were at various stages on the road to top-class status. Ozil, like Bergkamp, debuts as an undisputed world-class footballer. Indeed his stature might be slightly higher given the Dutchman arrived in London straight from an indifferent spell at Inter Milan.
“DB10” became short-hand for arguably the greatest player to pull on an Arsenal shirt and the number itself the nickname for a deep-lying, creative role just behind the main striker. “MO” may wear 11 but his crafty, cleverly-weighted passes scream of one digit lower.
Years ago you could get the cross in and the guy could jump over everybody and head the ball in. Today you have to find him through little pockets.
“He is a similar type to Bergkamp,” agreed Arsène Wenger. “Dennis was maybe a more prolific goalscorer, a more striker type. But he created a lot and his evolution through his career was an adaptation to his physical qualities – when he could not score any more he became a great provider.
“Ozil, at the start, is more of a midfielder mentality, and Dennis at the start was more of a striker mentality. But Ozil can score too.”
If the summer transfer market is to be believed, goal-makers are as valuable as goal-scorers these days. As ever, Wenger has a theory.
“First of all the space available to develop your game is shorter,” he explained. “So you need more players who can create that special opening.
“Also Europe produces less strikers than before. If you look at the number of strikers who have been sold during the summer, most of them are south American.
“If you compare England today with 20 or 30 years ago, the main difference for me is you have few strikers any more, [after] producing so many.
“That has happened because we have developed more the technical game. Therefore the guy who delivers this kind of ball becomes even more important.
“Years ago you could get the cross in and the guy could jump over everybody and head the ball in. Today you have to find him through little pockets.
“Maybe this is why this kind of player becomes more important because that creative aspect needed is higher.”
Under new manager Mark Hughes, Stoke have themselves moved away from the more direct approach described by Wenger. In the first half-dozen games they are already averaging more passes per match than in any of the previous five seasons.
It has been working.
I saw [Stoke] against Liverpool where they played quite well. They’ve gone to a different style of play but they were efficient before and they look efficient now as well.
They only lost to Liverpool on the opening day because Simon Mignolet saved a last-minute penalty. Since then they have rattled off three wins and, last Saturday, a draw with Manchester City. They started the weekend seventh, two points behind Arsenal.
“I haven’t seen a lot of them until now,” said Wenger. “But I saw them against Liverpool where they played quite well. They’ve gone to a different style of play but they were efficient before and they look efficient now as well. That shows you that the good players adapt.
“They are in very fine form but we are as well. We want to take advantage of the fact that we beat Tottenham, Fulham and Sunderland. It is very important and to come back well after the Champions League game we just won so psychologically we are in a strong position and we want to take advantage of that.”
Wenger might be able to name Mikel Arteta in his squad for the first time this season. The Spaniard was due for tests on his injured thigh on Saturday morning. You could argue that the Arsenal midfield, while possessing abundant attacking options, is an unusual shape right now with Jack Wilshere deployed on the left and Mathieu Flamini operating as the only genuine holding player. Wenger’s reply was simple.
“It’s based on results,” he said. “When you win, you can only say you want to continue and persist with the attacking formula because only a result can judge if your balance is right. But at the moment I believe that it’s a part of our philosophy as well.
“It’s easier to get somebody who can attack to do a bit more defensive work, than to get somebody who is purely [defensive] to contribute to an attacking system. If the solidarity and the spirit to help each other is as it is, it’s not a big gamble.”
Certainly the attacking flair, the camaraderie and the results are right at the moment. This week’s away wins over Sunderland and Marseille were hanging in the balance during the second half but cohesive defending stopped Arsenal conceding then clinical finishing brought them the points.
Wenger’s men have taken the lead in each of their last 12 matches – an incredible statistic when you thinking about. And their current run of six straight victories is already better than anything they achieved last season.
But the most important statistic of day is this – if Arsenal win and better Tottenham’s result at Cardiff they will finish the weekend on top of the Premier League table.
And the most important number might just be the one on Ozil’s back.
Welcome to Emirates Stadium, MO11.
Arsenal: Arteta (doubt thigh), Rosicky (hamstring), Sanogo (back), Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee), Cazorla (ankle), Podolski (hamstring), Diaby (knee)
Stoke: Adam (doubt – knock), Muniesa (groin), Whelan (hamstring), Ness (hip)