Mesut Özil followed up an electrifying World Cup by replacing Kaká, the second most expensive signing ever, in Real Madrid’s first XI. Moreover, the German midfielder moved to Madrid for a paltry €15 million – quite probably the best deal of the window. The former Werder Bremen player was heavily linked with Manchester United and many fans were understandably disappointed that Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t bid for the playmaker, given the need for a creative central midfielder.
Ironically, it was the low transfer fee that prevented the Reds from going for the player. Last summer Özil had just a year left on his contract and Werder was eager to cash him in before the Bosman ruling kicked in. The low asking price brought about strong competition for the German – Barcelona, Chelsea and Madrid competed with United for his signature. Given the financial constraints placed on each of these clubs it seems probable that a higher asking fee would have scared them away.
Dwight Yorke was bought in 1998 because Ferguson “felt we [United] had reached a stage where we needed a forward player capable of changing a game on his own, someone with the ability and confidence to take on an opponent and beat him. I looked around and the two best players in that area in my view are Ronaldo and Dwight Yorke.”
Ronaldo, whose agent had offered the player to United, wanted outlandish wages and the Scot opted instead for the former Aston Villa forward. Indeed, Ferguson has always maintained a clear and rigid wage structure. Ronaldo isn’t the only player that United missed out on because of the club’s wage structure but it has ensured a harmonious dressing room – financially at least.
With relatively meager sums being mooted by Bremen, Özil and his agents were in position to demand high wages – more than €100,000 per week net. By comparison, Wayne Rooney was on £90,000 pounds gross, with United ready to negotiate a contract – subsequently rejected – for the former Everton player. It left very little room to maneuver vis-à-vis German’s wages.
While Rooney complained about the lack of class signings in his now infamous post-transfer request press release, ironically, it could very well have been his own greed that prevented United from signing Özil.
The German’s eventual salary is perhaps even reasonable though, considering that Joe Cole earns not far short. Had United really wanted him, the Reds probably could have forced the transfer. So why didn’t United bother with the Turkish-German?
Tactically it would have been very hard to assimilate Özil. He is a classic trequartista who floats between the lines and has never played deeper or more disciplined role. Arguably the former Bremen player would have found it very hard to fit into the 4-4-2 based systems Ferguson has always used. The Scot has never experimented with central systems like 4-3-1-2 and 4-1-2-1-2.
Indeed, 4-2-3-1 is probably the only formation that United could deploy to fit in Özil and existing players. Even then, it would have been very difficult to play the system consistently and keep the squad happy with so many strikers on the books.
That isn’t to say Özil would not have fitted in at United at all. There is a long history of trequartisti playing as a second forward – Maradona the most famous example of all. Özil has also played closer to the strikers than to central midfielders at Madrid, and nominally despite lining up as a 4-2-3-1, Germany resembled 4-2-4 in the 2010 World Cup.
Özil can get away with that in German national team and at Madrid because of the strong midfield behind him. Whether United can put out a midfield duo as strong as Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira or Xabi Alonso and Khedira is a doubtful.
Özil remains an inconsistent player though. He had his best game in World Cup against Australia, where the Aussies played to his strengths by deploying a ludicrously high line. England also gave Özil a hand by playing a rigid 4-4-2 that left a gaping hole for the 21-year-old to exploit.
However, in games against Serbia, Argentina and Spain, Özil was quiet. The midfielder’s weaknesses were also found out in November’s Classico, where the German was deployed little deeper to pick up Xavi Hernández. Özil fumbled the defensive task and was unceremoniously substituted at half-time.
Indeed, there is an argument that classic trequartisti, although they continue to exist, are less influential due to more organised defenses. These players contribute little defensively while putting a great burden on others. Against the minnows, trequartisti can get away with doing little harrying; not so against the proper giants.
This remains a perennial problem with recruiting South American playmakers. For example, 4-3-1-2 remains the formation du jour in Argentina, where there is a sense of artistry about the game. Teams are built around playmakers and they are given ample room and time to strut their stuff.
South American playmakers find Europe, where players are more robust in closing them down and tactics are much less homogenous, extremely difficult. A long line of “next Maradonas,” such as Juan Roman Riquelme and Javier Saviola, who failed to make big impact shows just how difficult it is being trequartisti in Europe.
However, Cesc Fabregas and Luka Modric epitomise the newer breed of playmakers. The core of these players’ attributes remains similar to their cousins – excellent technique, passing, movement and reading of the game – but modern playmakers tend to be much more mobile, who do not shirk their defensive duties. Instead of floating, modern playmakers remain more central and often attack the box rather than work the channels.
Crucially, modern playmakers are just as comfortable playing a little deeper alongside other central midfielders. In fact some, like Modric, find deeper roles more comfortable since it affords him more time and space to dictate the game.
However, 4-4-2 remains a valuable tactic for United; it is a great shape to press and deploy a high line. Moreover, United will always face sides looking to sit deep and must execute a plan B to deal with these tactics. It suggests that Paul Scholes’ heir must be comfortable playing in Ferguson’s preferred system. Modern playmakers fit into such systems comfortably, where trequartisti struggle.
Arguably, that makes Javier Pastore – rather than Özil – the best candidate to replace Scholes. He’s very much a modern playmaker.