by Naveen Maliakkal
Aston Villa will probably look to play on the counter attack, and they will hope to do a better job than they did against Arsenal, at Villa Park, earlier this season. It seems likely that they will go with a 4-5-1 looking to have a tight three in midfield, with Tom Cleverly, Fabian Delph, and Carlos Sanchez making up a potential trio. Their back four will probably look to stay tight and together. Aly Cissokho, who could play left-back, has connected with nine of his 84 attempted crosses. Alan Hutton may go forward to find some space and deliver a cross. However, Villa’s possession game will probably revolve around getting the ball out wide to Andreas Weimann or Gabby Agbonlahor, hoping to get one of those players in space, playing long balls to Christian Benteke and having him get the ball out wide, or having Fabian Delph carry the ball, so to link the midfield with the attacking front. Other than that, Villa do not have much to offer when it comes to their possession game. This may explain why Aston Villa have the most anemic attack in the Premier League (footnote: For some more detail on Aston Villa, see the Villa-Arsenal preview from earlier this season).
Mesut Ozil – What is Not Seen
For those with an interest in economics, the reference to Frederic Bastiat may be rather apparent. However, the parable of the broken window will not be the focus of this part of the preview. Instead, the focus will be on Section 6 of the essay—a discussion on middlemen. In this section, Bastiat points out that the concept of the middleman is attacked by, in his time, modern economic schools of thought. Essentially, these schools believe that middlemen rob from producers and consumers, and that their operation should be eliminated or adopted by the State.
In his example of the starving Parisians and the wheat-bearing Odessans, Bastiat correctly points out that the middleman has an incentive to connect the Odessans and the Parisians at the lowest cost possible because they are motivated by profits. Increased efficiency in their ability to facilitate the interaction of others allows them to make greater profits, and reduces the resources needed to provide goods and services for society. These profits also serve as signals, causing resources to flow into the role of middlemen to facilitate that interaction. This leads to more trial-error-feedback loops occurring. Competition drives profits to a minimum and the knowledge revealed by the trial-error-feedback loops, along with the pricing mechanism, allows for the whole system to properly allocate resources towards the facilitation of the interaction between wheat demanders in Paris and wheat suppliers in Odessa. Looking at the whole smorgasbord of goods and services that can be purchased and supplied, along with the dynamic nature, with respect to time and place, of both the demand and supply of this wide variety of goods and services, these middlemen play a key role in the creation of value for society—creating the most value with the lowest amount of resources¹.
While Bastiat does not explicitly discuss the local knowledge problem, he criticizes the socialist plan of replacing profit-seeking middlemen with the State using the same principles that Hayek talked about in “The Use of Knowledge in Society”. Without the emergent signals of prices and profits, which come about through decentralized planning and, in part, the trial-error-feedback loops of individual middlemen, how will the State know how to allocate resources to best facilitate the interaction between individuals? Also, what incentive does the State have to maximize the amount of value they can produce and lower the resources they expend? While the middleman’s profits coupled with the value he provided others at the cost imposed on him, the intervention of the State involves a decoupling. The State could provide remarkable value or impoverish society with their poor utilization of resources, either way the resources through taxes come in. The feedback, in the trial-error-feedback loop process is damaged, and will probably lead to even less trial-error-feedback loops being engaged, lowering the overall system to respond appropriately to the dynamism described at the end of the previous paragraph.
Given the aptitude of middlemen and the ineptitude of the State, there is reason to wonder why the middleman has such a bad reputation, while the State is often looked at as the superior alternative. Bastiat believes this to be an issue of “what is seen” and “what is not seen”. Take the Parisians and Odessans. In the freer market scenario, the Parisians see that the middleman charges them a higher price for the same wheat the middleman purchased in Odessa at a lower price. The Odessans see that the price they get for their wheat is less than what the middleman gets for it in Paris. What neither side realizes is that their very interaction comes into existence due to the actions of the middleman. Removal of the role of the middleman would lead to poorer Odessans and Parisians. Adoption of the role of facilitator by the inferior State (the State is inferior, primarily due to the local knowledge problem and incentive issues, which were partially described in a preceding paragraph) takes away that direct contact with the hated fleecer that was the middleman.
However, the inferior facilitation leads to a misallocation of resources, making society worse off. But, the misallocation is not apparent. Going back to the local knowledge problem, the nature and extent of the misallocation can only be revealed by observing the freer market involving middleman. We have to experience the precise opportunity lost by having the State attempt to carry out the role of middleman, with respect to time and place. Even an (re)introduction of the middleman, given the limited understanding of any individual, sometimes manifested in “the man of system”², and the difficultly of identifying clear causality, due to the dynamic nature of the world around us³, may not provide quantifiable evidence of the net marginal value provided by the middlemen. Therefore, the poverty, imposed on people by the State, is often less detested than the middleman in the freer market, as the cost imposed by the State is “what is not seen”—the opportunity cost.
Much like the middleman, Mesut Ozil seems to lack appreciation for what he provides to Arsenal, by some fans. Part of the frustration may be due to the fact that Mesut Ozil has yet to hit the statistical highs that the hit at Real Madrid*. However, his unselfish and facilitative style of play may also work against him in the court of public opinion.
While players like David Silva and Santi Cazorla excel at moving from wide areas into central areas, Mesut Ozil excels at moving from central positions into wide areas. While this difference may seem trivial, it has some important implications. A player, who moves from a wide area to a more central area, moves into an area where they can potentially do more damage to the opposition. David Silva and Santi Cazorla, players who always want to be the one on the ball, want to ensure that they are in a more dangerous position when they receive the ball. A player, who moves from a central area into a wider area, moves to an area where they potentially reduce their ability to do damage, while on the ball. Why would a player lower their ability to make an impact on the match with their possession? The answer: To improve the team’s ability to do damage to their opponent.
By moving away from that prime attacking real estate, a player, like Mesut Ozil, looks to clear up or keep clear that space for a teammate to exploit. He wants to facilitate the play of others.
Sometimes this can lead to him making an easy-to-quantify or easy-to-see contribution to Arsenal’s attack. One example of this was Aaron Ramsey’s goal in Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Liverpool, during the 2013/14 season. In the build-up Mesut Ozil is the Arsenal player closest to the touchline. He advances with the ball, attracting Lucas Leiva and Steven Gerrard to him. Ozil’s wide positioning seems to confuse Jordan Henderson as well. If Tomas Rosicky had the ball instead of Ozil, and if Ozil was in a more traditional No. 10 position, then Henderson would have someone to target his efforts towards. Ozil, in that position, would give Henderson feedback on his positioning. Instead, Ozil’s movement gives Henderson no one to mark; Henderson does not have that feedback. Ozil puts mental pressure on Henderson. Henderson must understand the values of the spaces around him, relative to the ball, Arsenal’s team shape, and the position of his teammates. Sometimes, the most dangerous space is the space that no one occupies. It is not the same to start a player in the space he wants to occupy and to start him in the position where he must move to the position he wants to occupy. That act of movement/change of position, how it affects the interaction amongst the players on the pitch and how it allows a side in possession to be more dynamic, is an important aspect. This is also helps to explain why having a player who is a “penalty box presence” can be counter-productive. That is the real estate you want to occupy, with the ball. Sometimes, leaving that space unoccupied, only having a player entering it to finish off the move, makes a team less predictable, harder to defend, and therefore, more potent when it comes to scoring goals. Essentially, this is part of the logic of the “false” 9.
Henderson is not up to this spatial task, as he fails to adjust his positioning, leaving about 18 meters between Kolo Toure and him. Watching the action before this goal, you can see Henderson looking into that space for a player to mark, only to find no one. If an easily observable target had been present, Henderson has a better chance to be in the right defensive position.
Ramsey ends up identifying the gap in Liverpool’s defense and makes his run forward. Ozil delivers a fantastic pass; Giroud makes a run between Sakho and Toure, which buys Ramsey some more time; Ramsey shoots; Arsenal go up 2-0.
However, that goal still involves Ozil making an easy-to-observe contribution, with his pass to set up Ramsey. Goals that best typify Ozil, in this author’s opinion, involve him not touching the ball, but positioning himself so to allow his teammates to make the easy-to-observe contribution.
In Euro 2012, the Netherlands set up with two holding midfielders to help them control the space in front of their back four. Against Germany, they failed in their attempt to control that space due to Mesut Ozil. In the build-up to the first goal, Mesut Ozil drifts to the right side, dragging one of the Netherlands’ holding midfielders with him. Now, the Netherlands have one player to cover the space in front of the CBs, and he gets attracted to Sami Khedira’s movement, secondary to Ozil’s movement. This leaves a large space for Bastien Schweinsteiger to receive Thomas Muller’s pass, with only one defensive line in front of him. He has the time, space, and quality to play the ball into Mario Gomez, who slots it home, to give Germany a 1-0 lead.
Germany’s second goal also involves Ozil playing in a wide area, vacating the traditional No. 10 space. In doing so, he drags a holding midfielder out of position, leaving a hole in the Netherland’s shape. This time, he receives the ball and makes a sideways pass to Bastien Schweinsteiger. Again, Schweinsteiger receives the ball in plenty of space, with one defensive line in front of him, and he has more than enough quality to play Gomez in on goal, leading to Germany taking a 2-0 lead.
So while we have a pass leading directly to a goal in the case of the Liverpool goal, Ozil’s contribution to these two Germany goals is not as easy to quantify. In the case of the second goal, there is the sideways pass, the hockey assist, in the lead up to the goal. However, the real value of Ozil, in the build-up to both goals, is taking himself out of a dangerous area to open it up for a teammate. Schweinsteiger gets the assist in both cases and Mario Gomez gets the goals, but without Mesut Ozil’s spatial understanding, intelligence in positioning, and selflessness, do these chances get created? Does the interaction of Schweinsteiger and Gomez take place without Mesut Ozil’s role as the facilitator of interaction4?
If Ozil plays a style that sees him stay in those dangerous areas, like Cesc Fabregas, he may benefit, but it could come at a cost to the team. Instead of saying that Mesut Ozil’s selfishness, his desire to occupy dangerous spaces, cost the team, many would probably say that his impact on the ball helped earn that point. The opportunity cost of Ozil’s selfish play would be unseen. But just because it is unseen or unquantifiable, does not deny its existence5
Granted, there is a dependence that Mesut Ozil has on the quality of the players around him to take advantage of his ability to allow others to play. Much like Kyle Korver of the Atlanta Hawks, Mesut Ozil’s ability to make life easier for his teammates, through his spatial understanding and positioning, works better on a team that has players who can exploit those openings6. On this Arsenal side, with the quality of players like Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez, who do want to occupy that space in front of the opponent’s back line, it seems that Ozil is surrounded by teammates who will enjoy playing with Arsenal’s unselfish superstar. He can provide balance, facilitate interaction, and, ultimately, improve the effectiveness of Arsenal’s possession. Whether that leads to an impact that is easily observable, either to the eye or to quantitative analysis, is irrelevant. Like the middleman, what matters is that he has an impact on the team, not how easy it is to observe, and appreciation should not depend on the ease of observation. Instead, the desire to appreciate should facilitate a search for understanding.
¹Obviously, Bastiat (and I) are assuming that coercion, either directly, or indirectly, through the use of government, otherwise known as rent-seeking, is not in play as to how resources are allocated.
²This term comes from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The whole quote is as follows: The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”
³Instead of referencing Hayek, this seems like a good place to recommend Ludwig Von Mises’ Human Action: A Treatise on Economics for a discussion on the dynamic world we live in and how that impacts our ability to make economic calculations.
4For those Adam Smith fans, a facilitator of interaction, along with being a product of the division of labor, allows for greater returns on the division of labor. In the case of football, the potency of the players’ dynamically specialization increases as the ability to interact increases.
5“However, the sciences of human action differ radically from the natural sciences. All authors eager to construct an epistemological system of the sciences of human action according to the pattern of the natural sciences err lamentably” – Ludwig Von Mises. The more complex the interaction and actions of humans you are trying to observe, the more likely that things we care about become less easy to observe.
6Unlike basketball, which has a greater use of in-game substitutions, the usefulness of team metrics with Player X and without Player X are much less valuable in football, and therefore, have less to tell us about the nature of play
*Tim’s note: Özil hasn’t hit the statistical highs at Arsenal that he did in La Liga for three main reasons: the Premier League and la Liga aren’t the same; at Real Madrid he was playing with di Maria, Benzema, and that guy with the greasy hair and chiseled abs; and he’s not been able to get a run of form due to injury and Wenger juggling his position. We should all wait to see what Özil can do now that Arsenal have a real goal scorer up front.