Mesut Ozil, not tunnel-visioned Cristiano Ronaldo, is the key to Real Madrid’s future, but Jose Mourinho must change his tactics in order to eclipse Barcelona

Spanish giants need the German playmaker in order to reach their best, but accommodating him will not be easy
By Clark Whitney | German Football Editor

In the aftermath of last Saturday's Clasico, there has been quite a stir in the Spanish press over the state of Mesut Ozil. The Real Madrid playmaker has taken heavy criticism for failing to provide his trademark final passes in the Primera giants’ 3-1 home loss to arch-rivals Barcelona, and has even been rumoured to be close to an exit from the Spanish capital.

Reviewing his performance, Ozil indeed did not provide the creativity, the through balls and crosses that have come to characterise his game. His biggest contribution was in the opening seconds, when his blocked volley led to Karim Benzema’s opener, but that was his only highlight before being replaced by Kaka on 58 minutes.

But to blame Ozil alone for his performance would be nothing more than scapegoating. In Real Madrid's attack, he is an anomaly, a very specific type of player who requires a very specific environment in order to thrive. When in the wrong setting, he struggles.

At Real Madrid, Ozil is an ‘extra’ in the attack. For Germany, every move runs through him

Angel di Maria, Kaka, and to an even greater extent Cristiano Ronaldo have the pace, acceleration, and strength to impose themselves individually, engaging defenders one-on-one. Ozil, for pragmatic and cultural reasons, plays a more subtle game. He is not powerful, and comes from a German background that emphasises short, one-touch passing sequences and places little value on one’s ability to beat opponents on the dribble.

In the right context, a player whose strengths are so polarised towards passing can be magnificent. But elsewhere, his brilliance can go under-appreciated or wasted. Xavi, for example, spent most of his career playing well, but not being recognised for his true quality: only at age 28, when he finally had a fit and mature Andres Iniesta at his side, did he appear in his first major international final. He is now regarded as one of the best central midfielders of all time, and rightly so.

Ronaldo would not be substituted even if he were having the worst game of his career. These days, Ozil is withdrawn well before his fatigue point

Even amid his club slump, Ozil has been stellar for Germany: since September he has scored four goals in as many matches and given three assists. He thrives for country because the German attack is built around him. He often plays the ball 100 or more times in a game as the likes of Thomas Muller and Miroslav Klose exchange passes and make runs to open up space for him to use. The second and third goals in Germany’s 3-0 prestige friendly win against bitter rivals the Netherlands last month - which he assisted and scored, respectively - show just how good Ozil can be when placed in the right tactical set-up, alongside the right players.

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But as Real Madrid are currently playing, Ozil is in the wrong environment. Reviewing the Clasico, there was no team-work within the Madrid ranks. Over and over, Ronaldo and Di Maria would receive possession and sprint up the touchline into an inevitable cul-de-sac. Their runs included no shortage of effort, but lacked even the slightest amount of finesse, and were all too easily predictable. Ozil became irrelevant as time and time again his team-mates were mobbed by a swarm of defenders, and ultimately dispossessed.

Ozil’s support in defensive midfield was sub-par as well. For all his physicality and strength in defensive play, Lassana Diarra is no technical wizard, and cannot be counted upon to help make space for a No. 10. It is no coincidence that Ozil’s best performances have come with Sami Khedira - a footballer of limited technique, but superb positional instincts and a culturally-embedded sense of one-touch passing - in the same XI.

Even Xabi Alonso is not enough support in midfield, especially without a suitable partner: he is typically an excellent player, but against Barca has often struggled. Because his team-mates were neither quick enough in distributing the ball, nor clever enough in their movement, Ozil hardly had an inch of space in possession. He was rarely dispossessed, and even less frequently misplaced a pass, but without room to work with simply couldn’t split the defence with a trademark ball. Accordingly, he was effectively relegated to a defensive midfield role, with the purpose of retaining possession rather than creating goals.

Individualism works against lesser opponents, but only team-work can overcome the world’s elite

The question naturally follows: why should Jose Mourinho adjust his tactics to accommodate just one player? And indeed, a simpler option would be to replace Ozil with Kaka, who, although unable to provide the kind of passes typical for the German, still has much more physicality and the one-on-one skills to fit into the current system. The trainer has done this time and time again, and in general - but not on Saturday - it has worked for the team. But the truth is, even with Kaka in their line-up, Real Madrid will not be the best they can be, not without tactical changes.

Mourinho’s men have had a successful season on the whole, no doubt because individualism can be effective against lesser sides. However, the quality of a team is not measured in whether they beat a relegation-battling side by two or eight goals. Rather, it is found in the results they obtain against the world’s elite. And while the Clasico was decided by a few critical moments - a wayward Ronaldo header among them - there is no denying that Real Madrid failed to keep consistent offensive pressure, and were held to a couple isolated opportunities. They can do and have done better than this: previous encounters with Barcelona were heated to the final whistle. Last Saturday's installment ended with a whimper. Without technical quality and invention in midfield, this will only continue.

The Clasico was a clear measuring stick: Real Madrid may have the quality to consistently hammer lower opponents, but are still lacking on the grandest stage. They need a glue to bind them together. They need Mesut Ozil.

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